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Monday, 14 April 2014 14:26

Concert review: Ben Folds and the St. Louis Symphony unfold impressive, playful set at Powell Hall, Sunday, April 13

Concert review: Ben Folds and the St. Louis Symphony unfold impressive, playful set at Powell Hall, Sunday, April 13
Written by Brian Benton

"This is a song about … well, I don’t really know," says Ben Folds early in his show at Powell Hall, smiling, smirking even, at the packed theatre.

Folds is feeling playful and has woven jokes into the introduction of every song so far. He will continue to do so for the rest of the night, the crowd slowly growing more accustomed to laughing at a St. Louis Symphony show. As the night progresses, there will be more standing ovations, more shouts for song requests and more whoops as the Nashville, Tenn.-based musician and orchestra behind him play the opening notes of each song.

It took a while for the crowd to loosen up to this point; you're not supposed to laugh while at the symphony, or sing along, and you're especially not supposed to curse. Folds allowed for all of those things. In fact, he encouraged them. When Folds eventually found the words to explain that the song "Jesusland" came about while driving through "some of the ugliest parts of the country," he smiled as wide as the audience and members of the orchestra.

From the very get-go, it was clear that despite the formal setting, the night would be light-hearted. Promptly at 7:30 p.m., the St. Louis Symphony began playing opening notes, and as the short, mop-headed musician took the stage, a chorus erupted in the opening lines of "Effington": "If there's a God, he is laughing at us, and our football team."

Folds wore jeans, a grey blazer, a black t-shirt and black Pumas. Some of the crowd dressed similarly, while others took the opportunity to play dress-up and break out their suits and ties. Others stuck with the same t-shirts they probably would have worn had the show been at the Pageant. Families and young couples dominated, along with some of the older spectators you might expect to see at classical concert.

Folds is no stranger to playing in symphonic settings, and has been doing similar performances for over a decade. Perhaps that's why he seemed so at home with a full, 60-member orchestra behind him. Instead of sounding heavy-handed with the St. Louis Symphony, the pairing was subtle and effortless, with Folds and his piano serving as just another component.

Of course, Folds was more than just a component – he was the star – especially clear at moments when his piano had a primary role. One of the showpieces of the performance was Folds' recently debuted piano concerto, perfect evidence that his joke about being far less skilled than the musicians behind him only reinforced that he's as humble as he is talented. Folds performed just the first movement, an epic, eight-minute piece full of plucky piano playing and thunderous moments of percussion and strings.

An equally ambitious moment came when a fan dared Folds to perform "Rock This Bitch," an inside-joke of sorts among Folds' fans that derives from a front-row heckler at a 2001 live-album recording and an improvised song. Now, when someone in the crowd shouts those words, Folds has pledged to always improvise a new version. After assigning each orchestra section parts, Folds treated the audience to a saxophone and harp-steered piece seemed to amuse the musicians as much as it did the audience.

The whole night, Folds seemed giddy, like a kid given a new toy. He joked with conductor Steven Jarvi between songs, gave shout-outs to particular instruments and during "Not the Same," assigned different sections of the 2,700-person theater different notes to sing and leaped around the stage as he composed a borderline-harmonious spectacle.

For songs when Folds typically curses, he would leave a blank and let the audience fill in the missing word. After "Middle Class and White," for example, he made sure to clarify that he didn't actually swear. "It was them! I respect this establishment," he joked.

Other fan favorites included "Annie Waits" and "Brick," both polished but playfully synthesized with the orchestra. Jarvi bounced atop his platform as he conducted and Folds frequently pushed aside his piano bench to stand while playing. About two-thirds into the 18-song show, Folds announced his finger was bleeding, likely from the ferocious piano playing, but of course he kept going.

With every joke and every invitation to sing, the packed Powell Hall grew more rowdy, to the point that by Folds' solo encore, song requests came from all corners of the opulent, 90-year-old building. During the final song, "Army," spectators jumped to their feet and shouted along as Folds banged on his Steinway piano. If Folds' had played any longer, the crowd probably would have rushed the stage.

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