By: Tiffany Mull
Ben Folds entered my radar in a real way at a Tori Amos concert. He’d just embarked on his solo career and she gave him a leg up by letting him open for her Lottapianos tour. He has grown as an artist since then and seems to have taken a cue from her refusal to draw harsh lines between the rock and classical music worlds. Ben was backed by the Utah Symphony Orchestra (along with a choir) which plumped out and embellished his melodies as well as faithfully performed pieces from his sonically ambitious So There album, written with an orchestral arrangement in mind. My one disappointment was that they did not perform Ben’s “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” which topped Billboard Classical and Classical Crossover charts.
Abravanel Hall, under its rainbow-refracting chandeliers, was a little chattier and a little more casual than usual. The show opened with “Zak and Sara,” followed by “Jesusland.” Ben described himself as a guest of the Utah Symphony, adding that they are one the best he plays with before going into a comically gravelly, creepy, beaten-down voice, “And kids, I play with ‘em all.”
He shared with us that a Japanese radio station propositioned him with the following: if he would write two jingles for them to use, they would make his song number one. “No one had asked me to suck for an amount of money before,” he said, “I sold out. I did it and they made my song number one.” He then shared the banal jingle with the following lyrics, “When the words of the world have got you feeling down and you’re looking for some music that’s pretty good, Tokyo’s number one music station 76.1, it’s pretty good.”
“So There” was followed by the energetic “Capable of Anything,” which rapidly skipped along and showcased flashy, one-handed arpeggios. In the plodding, almost militaristic (thanks to the snare drums) “You Don’t Know Me,” Ben tactfully substituted, “Why the f*ck would you want me back?” with “Why the heck would you want me back?” earning a giggle from the audience. By way of complimenting the choir and orchestra, he said, “Punk rockers like to brag about how they just go for it, but what that amounts to is playing one bar of music over and over. What this orchestra does is way more rough and tumble.”
“Cologne” was written on a stage in Germany. He had pneumonia and had taken a few too many Codeine drops. It’s a mournful song that playfully mentions Lisa Nowak’s diaper-wearing, murderous mental break which was in the news that day. The orchestra, accented by trumpets, added tasteful body to the tune.
After intermission, the choir opened “Effington” by dramatically singing, “If there’s a god, he’s laughing at us and our football team,” to comedic effect. “Landed” might be my favorite Ben Folds song. It went well with soft brass, smooth strings, and understated backing vocals. At this point, someone near the front leapt to their feet, shot their hands to the ceiling, and shrieked, “Rock this bitch!” Ben recorded a live solo piano album in 2002 and someone in the audience yelled, “Rock this bitch!” In response, Ben improvised a song incorporating the demand in the lyrics. Since then, it’s tradition for someone to yell this phrase at each Ben Folds concert as a challenge for him to free-style a song.
Ben dutifully composed a song, off the cuff, for and with the symphony. He methodically worked through each section, giving them orders. The vibraphones were to play C major 7, the happiest of all keys, after which they were to hop up a fourth to go to the same chord in F Major. The xylophone was ordered to use a medium-hard mallet, dampening the note with one hand, to imitate a key Ben rhythmically struck on the piano as demonstration. The bass drum was to play on the downbeat and to click rapidly on the rim, making the percussive bed for his song.
The harp was to do a high arpeggio of E minor and the bassoons were told to provide drones. First violins were ordered to pluck (pizzicato) G, C, G, C alternating on octaves. The second violins were to pluck at a counterpoint to the first violins. He then had half of each section split to go an octave higher. He gave the melody to the violas.
Double basses and cellos were ordered to plod on the down beats. “Brass players know how to improvise,” he said, “trumpets, once in a while you just blurt something out.” He ordered the saxophone player to do a solo in the middle of the song. The chorus was instructed when to sing, “We are rocking this bitch, we are rocking this bitch in Salt Lake City.” The result was fairly impressive for a song created in a matter of minutes. “That’s just how Mahler and Beethoven did it,” he joked.
Next was “Smoke,” followed by “Steven’s Last Night,” played fast, brassy, and aggressive with a swanky, swing beat and trumpet riffs. “There are two types of cities,” Ben said, “The first kind of city has a symphony orchestra. The other kind is crap.” He made a speech about the importance of the arts, urging concert goers to return to support the orchestra and save civilization while they’re at it. “But I guess I’m preaching to the choir,” he said, “preaching to the tabernacle.”
The audience was divided into three-part harmonies to “Aaaaaahhhh” the backing vocals of “Not the Same.” “Brick” started out slow and soft, stripped down to the piano and violins. The percussion and harp crept in, followed by the other strings. The entire orchestra was participating by the chorus, heightening the drama of the song. “One Angry Dwarf” was histrionic and brassy with a jarring, big-band sound. The evening ended with “Narcolepsy” with quick drop-offs in sound (dramatic shifts in volume) and Ben literally fist-slamming the piano keys.
Zak and Sara
Jingle for Japanese Radio Station
Capable of Anything
You Don’t Know Me
Rock This Bitch Improvisation
Steven’s Last Night
Not the Same
One Angry Dwarf