Grand piano: Ben Folds live at the Hammersmith Apollo, 23 January 2007
Ben Folds owes me 200 quid. If it wasn’t for Ben Folds Five’s self-titled debut LP, I wouldn’t have walked into Argos one day in 1996 with the cunning idea to buy a Yamaha PSR-215 keyboard. The plan, of course, was to hammer away at it until I was a maestro and become a world-famous pop star, or at least learn a few honky-tonk chords and pretend to be the Quireboys’ Chris Johnstone. (Actually, perhaps Ben ought to split the cost with Chris - would that make it more affordable, guys? Let me know.)
Of course, like every other time I’ve opened my wallet while in this highly suggestible state, it was a bad investment. The keyboard, boxed of course, still takes up a daft amount of room in my flat. It’d be a shame to part with it. Y’know… just in case the talent fairies decide to drop by my house and wave their magic wands.
I saw Ben Folds live for the first time circa 1996, at the LA2 (now the Mean Fiddler) in London. It was a memorable gig for many reasons, but mainly because I didn’t actually see much of Mr Folds, who kept disappearing behind the first few rows’ heads - a side-effect of a packed venue and the position of his piano. I mention this as it makes a nice little metaphor for what happened next: my interest in the guy started to wane (I was possibly resentful about the keyboard I’d bought not managing to play itself), and he disappeared from my radar for many years.
My wife Tara started listening to Ben Folds again a few years ago, and I heard bits and pieces, but it wasn’t until Songs For Silverman, released in 2005, that I sat up and really took notice. The single Landed - a walk-out song that seems to channel Elton’s Tiny Dancer - was as perfect a slice of piano-driven pop as I’d ever heard, and the album quickly became a firm favourite. Backtracking through Folds’ catalogue, his talents - as a songwriter, pianist, vocalist and performer - have never been more evident to me. I mean, I had this figured out back in '96, but for some stupid reason I forgot, or stopped caring anyway. It’s nice to be back in the fold (no pun intended - honest).
The Hammersmith Apollo, the venue for last’s night’s gig, was a far cry from the cosy confines of the LA2, but what the show lacked in in-your-face intimacy, it made up for in other ways - such as being able to see. Oh, and a super-sized, three-ring lighting rig - cor!
The three-piece band - piano/bass/drums - may have looked a little lost on the massive stage, but the sound was huge. The volume was a tad quiet to begin with, but it crept up sneakily and was soon rattling ribcages. Between songs, the roar of the crowd was epic, the famed London indifference nowhere to be seen. It sounded like stadium euphoria - the kind of noise you’d expect to hear if John Lennon suddenly wandered on stage behind Paul McCartney… in 2007.
In some ways, Folds the performer reminds me of a more disciplined Ryan Adams. He seems aware that it’s the mucking about between songs that often makes gigs unique - last night’s ‘special moments’ included the Little House On The Prairie theme played on a melodica and an improvised song about having a curry - but his flights of fancy are brief enough not to outstay their welcome and start annoying anyone. He’s a master at building a set too, and knows the value of a good piece of audience participation - as anyone who’s heard a live version of Army will know.
The real joy of Folds, though, is that he transcends the ‘sensitive singer-songwriter’ tag by: a) playing much of his live sets standing up, b) regularly abusing his piano, and c) being one of the brightest, wittiest lyricists in pop. As great as he is at the heartfelt stuff (and he is - the scenarios he describes in songs such as Landed feel heartbreakingly real), he excels when it comes to humour. Take the aforementioned Army, for instance, which boasts one of the best opening lines ever: “Well, I thought about the army / Dad said: ‘Son, you’re fucking high’”.
Folds’ choice of covers is always interesting, and last night we got his famed breezy lounge take on Dr Dre’s Bitches Ain’t Shit, complete with audience singalong - a (knowingly paradoxical) joy. It worked on at least two levels, and one of them - the gravitas it was afforded by all players - was very funny.
Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry… that’s show business. And Ben Folds clearly means it. If he’s reading and is concerned about that debt, I’ll settle for an IOU (would look great framed) and a couple of choruses of Still Fighting It. Can’t say fairer than that.