Review: Ben Folds & yMusic

Alex Whybrow listens to some tales of the unexpected.

You never quite know what to expect with Ben Folds. He’s spent the last twenty-odd years as a series of seemingly opposite characteristics rolled into one. Serious and silly, sweet and bitter, cynical and lovesick: the yin and the yang of music. His latest collaboration, with yMusic, a classical ensemble from New York, attracted me more out of curiosity then excitement. How would this fit in with the pop-rock ditties that we’ve come to expect from him?

If the audience were hoping for clues from the warm up act as to how the evening would pan out, they were to be disappointed. That’s not to say that Lera Lynn’s performance was a let down in any way, but Foldsian it was not. Along with guitarist Joshua Grange, she guided us through a series of indie-folk tracks; the minimilist style leaving her exceptional voice to carry the bulk of the work load. After playing an atmospheric track from the TV show True Detective (in which she was cast as a singer) she finished with a crowd-pleasing cover of Ring of Fire, the moody style claiming the song as her own.

We were ready for the main event. yMusic got us started. Featuring the unique line up of a string trio, flute, clarinet and trumpet they burst into song, building to a crescendo as Folds entered the stage and took his place behind the piano. This was to be like no other gig I’d ever been to.

They piled into a few tracks from So There, the first album from the collaboration. Fittingly, the sound was both completely different and yet unmistakeably Folds. His unique voice and lyrical style maintained from his previous work, but with a classical lilt underneath, constantly building the sound up around his piano, lifting it to a different level altogether.

As the band would work away at their instruments, Folds would delight in popping out from behind his piano to whisper instructions, wanting to tinker with the songs as they were being played. This gave the impression that we really were watching something truly unique. He was having a ball, and we were too; watching an extremely talented musician working with a group of extremely talented musicians.

With the classical music and the more traditional venue, you might imagine a more serious and sombre performance. You’d be wrong. Folds was as mischievous as ever, reciting obscene songs he’d made up in his early teens, and composing an impromptu song about Birmingham for us, singing “Birming-um not Birming-ham, UK not Alabama” while gesturing at the musicians frantically when he wanted them to start, stop or change what they were playing.

He took us through his back catalogue as well, often starting a song before stopping, “Just imagine I played the whole thing”, and taking requests from the crowd. A prolific song writer, he would start an anecdote about where he was when he wrote a song, before getting distracted and starting a different song. It was if he was too excited about what he was doing to concentrate on one song; like a dog that had just found five different packets of biscuits, not knowing which to direction to go next but having a lovely time regardless. All while the members of yMusic sat patiently, in perfect formation in front of him, ready to join in with any song at his command, presumably often for the very first time.

Finishing with Army, for which the two sides of the Symphony Hall were encouraged to be the horn section and backing vocals, Folds and his latest ensemble retired from the stage after two hours of performing. And we left knowing we’d just seen one of the most prolific, creative and naturally talented musicians working today, who was enjoying every second of it.