tue 25/06/2024

Ben Folds, Royal Albert Hall review - piano pyrotechnics and modern musings | reviews, news & interviews

Ben Folds, Royal Albert Hall review - piano pyrotechnics and modern musings

Ben Folds, Royal Albert Hall review - piano pyrotechnics and modern musings

A relaxed run through old classics and new delights

Ben Folds on tour in UK and Europe in 2023Ben Folds

When Ben Folds emerged in the mid-90s he was like Billy Joel’s snot-nosed little brother: another virtuoso pianist and songwriter but one whose style was sarcastic, subversive and a little bit punky.

He has now mellowed into something of an elder statesman, still able to get the room jumping, but also capable of meditation on the state of the world, on getting older, on human relationships, all wrapped up in the catchiest tunes around.

Folds has only released two albums in the last 11 years, but What Matters Most, which came out in June, sees him back to his best after the underwhelming So There in 2015. Not surprisingly, the bulk of this Albert Hall setlist came from the new album, including the hilarious opener, “Exhausting Lover”, about a casual on-tour sexual encounter that gets out of hand (“Here nerd beat my ass in the bath like my dad did when I was a bad kid”). This segued straight into “Winslow Gardens”, about his getting stuck in a small apartment in Sydney for lockdown, the potentially bleak story lifted by the kind of jauntily shifting metre Folds does so well.

The highlight of the album, and one of the highlights of this gig, is “Kristine from the Seventh Grade”, Folds’ dissection of modern conspiracist thinking, as spread through social media. What could have been an angry rant for the 90s Folds (the creator of “Song for the Dumped” or “Bitch Went Nuts”) is here a tender and almost painfully beautiful expression of sadness that people make themselves so unhappy with QAnon and the like. Here his band were perfectly in tune with the vibe, Paul Wright’s restrained cello and backing vocals, Ross Garen’s harmonica picking out a delicate waltz of despair.

American Singer-songwriter Ben FoldsAt the other end of the spectrum was the raucous “Effington”, the only time we really got the edginess of the original Ben Folds Five. The band built to a raucous climax, shouty energy in the vocal harmonies, a dazzling flood of notes in Folds’ solo. This came straight after perhaps the crowd favourite on the night, the ebullient "You Don’t Know Me”, originally a duet with Regina Spektor, in which the audience took on the Spektor lines with gusto. Elsewhere Folds led a communal three-part harmony in “Not the Same”, the mainly 40- and 50-something audience going for it gamely.

The band, also including Tim Harrington on guitar and vocals, drummer Paul Dumas and livewire bassist Mandy Clarke were cracking, joined by three guests through the evening. Ashley Campbell’s banjo added a fluidity to “Back to Anonymous”, the charismatic Dodie was wasted on the forgettable “So There” – and most left-field of all was Matt Lucas, who sang a straight and very creditable vocal on “Fred Jones, Pt. 2”.

But there was no question about the central focus. Ben Folds, in black T-shirt, short hair and trademark glasses was mesmerising, whether pounding out one of his scarcely believable solos (“Zak and Sara”), hitting his most tender falsetto (“Still Fighting It”) or sharing anecdotes in relaxed and confidential mode, it was a pleasure to be in the same (big) room as him. Long may he continue.

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