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Review: Ben Folds with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra

Grant Walters Grant Walters Review: Ben Folds with the Columbus Symphony OrchestraAll photos by Grant Walters and Julie Hood.
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The alt-rock singer, songwriter and producer joined the talented CSO at the Ohio Theatre for a memorable Saturday night as part of the BravoPops! series

A bearded Ben Folds walked onto the Ohio Theatre stage Saturday night, joining his symphonic collaborators for the evening as the capacity audience cheered and applauded zealously. After seating himself at a grand piano, the ensemble launched a two-hour-plus performance with “Effington” from Folds’ 2008 album Way to Normal. Conductor Peter Stafford Wilson and his versatile musicians warmly enveloped Folds’ expressive vocal — a dynamic that particularly shone as they leaned into the flourishing “Capable of Anything”, the opening track from his most recent release So There.

The crowd was a mix of CSO regulars and Folds enthusiasts — the latter of which yelped gleefully as deeper cuts from his catalog were introduced throughout the night. Folds amply proved his ability to balance musical discipline and showmanship, knowing exactly when and how to leverage his audience’s participation. It didn’t take much convincing on his part, however, to coax a sing-along to “You Don’t Know Me” — which successfully filled in the gaps left by the absence of the track’s original guest vocalist, Regina Spektor.

Folds’ sense of humor was an important and entertaining contribution to the show’s success — witty interludes and well-placed expletives were plentiful. Shortly into the second half of the show, an audience member interrupted him by replicating a now-legendary moment from a 2001 concert in Chicago when a fan randomly shouted “rock this bitch!” Folds famously responded by immediately transforming the quip into an improvised on-stage composition — a jam he’s resurrected at dozens of shows since with variant lyrics, melodies, and genres. He paused to explain the bit to the orchestra, noting that the fan “wasn’t being bad. I mean, he was, but…” before dictating impromptu parts to each section. “Do you have any bongos back there?” he inquired as he scanned the back of the house. Principal percussionist Philip Shipley obliged and returned to the stage with them in hand, playing while seated on the piano at Folds’ request. At one point, Folds endearingly engaged him in a few rounds of call-and-answer, hammering beats with his hands on the lid of the piano. It was silliness in the best sense of the word, but the unscripted product was impressive.

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A few songs later, the crowd was enlisted by Folds to supply four-part harmonies for “Not The Same”, from 2001′s Rockin’ The Suburbs. After teaching the individual vocal parts, Folds conducted his assembled chorus through the performance with fervor. It sounded remarkably rich and accomplished for an off-the-cuff routine — and it was an undeniably special moment between him and his audience.

Folds followed with “Brick” — the somber ballad about abortion that first afforded him and Ben Folds Five international attention. It sounded just as haunting as it did when it first played on the radio in 1997, although fuller orchestration removed some of its original starkness. The fiery “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” from the same album, Forever And Ever Amen, closed out the show’s official set list.

After a standing ovation, Folds returned to the stage and began his encore with fan favorite “The Luckiest” — a love song he wrote for Rockin’ The Suburbs despite an initial agreement he’d made with his Ben Folds Five counterparts years earlier to never do so. Although one may not describe his voice as mellifluous, it’s indisputably earnest — and this live arrangement was a perfect vehicle for it. His finale — the rousing string-heavy instrumental “Theme From Dr. Peyser” — was a fitting way to showcase Folds’ skillfulness as a composer and the CSO’s collective ambidexterity in one last fell swoop.

Musicians like Folds are a special breed; few contemporary pop acts could pull off such an ambitious show with the same artistic and technical integrity. Although he’s indicated future projects will likely steer him in another creative direction, the cross-generational appeal he achieved with this experiment will surely entice the newest fans he’s gained to keep their eyes — and ears — open for whatever he dreams up next.

All photos by Grant Walters and Julie Hood.

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