On Monday night I had the pleasure of seeing Ben Folds and New York-based classical sextet Ymusic play in my local symphony hall.
Things got off to a good start with the support act, Lera Lynn - who I was vaguely familiar with but didn't really know very well (I haven't watched the second season of True Detective yet, but apparently she plays a role in that). She's a Nashville musician who does a good line in moody, atmospheric, minor-key country songs with an absolutely beautiful, crystal-clear voice to cut through the wall of guitar.
(If you squint, you can actually see me in that pic - down in the front row, second from the left on the central block of seats.)
Paired with guitarist Joshua Grange, they got a good sound out of a pretty sparse setup, with a set of captivating (if slightly samey) songs that finished with her low-key cover of Ring Of Fire (the only song of hers that I really remember having heard before). It was a very different style of music to what Folds offers, but I enjoyed it a lot, and my wife liked it so much that she bought the latest album on the night (and we had a nice chat with Lera afterwards as she was manning her own stall).
Then after a short interval, Ben Folds and Ymusic played a cracking set that lasted a good couple of hours.
The setup was an interesting one. I've seen Folds four or five times previously, and each time he's been in a slightly different mode - sometimes alone with just him and a piano, sometimes paired with a bassist and drummer, and sometimes with Ben Folds Five - and this was quite different again. With three members of Ymusic flanking him on either side, he sat behind an upright piano and acted as pianist, singer, band leader and conductor, with a drummer off behind to his left.
They ran through quite a few of the songs from their recent collaboration album So There before launching into a more wide-ranging trawl through the Folds back catalogue, interspersed with a couple of purely instrumental pieces by Ymusic alone.
The Folds songs they chose to perform together were ones that were well-suited to a more orchestral arrangement (even if a cello is never quite going to replicate the feel of a fuzzy bass), and there was also a fairly long section during which Folds performed solo, taking the audience on a trip back through his musical beginnings, interspersed with several (apparently spontaneous? Ymusic didn't really seem to know it was going to happen, anyway) blasts of the earliest songs he wrote, until we started to get into the Ben Folds Five back catalogue, and Ymusic started to join in a bit more again.
There was also the now-traditional improvisational section of the show, that this time saw Folds compose an anthem for Birmingham ("Birming-um, UK - not BirmingHAM, Alabama" ), extending his usual off-the-cuff piano skills to the entire band - coaching each instrument on what parts to play, before bringing them together for a surprisingly tight performance. (I suspect some of it may have been at least partly rehearsed, but there was clearly a decent amount of improvisation going on too).
The night finished with an encore that took in some of his most rousing numbers, ending on Army (which is always a fun audience-participation experience). It was nice to see that he didn't feel the need to fall back on a lot of his biggest hits - especially the ones that wouldn't have worked so well with Ymusic anyway - and the overall feeling was one of being let in on a semi-improvised, semi-very-well-orchestrated night of music by some very talented musicians.
(I think you'd like Ymusic @davidm ).