Powell Hall is no rock club or arena. The opulent 86-year-old, French-inspired building seats nearly 2,700 and houses the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. In a space reserved for high-brow classical music, Folds, in his first performance with the orchestra, brought his pop/rock songs and allowed the group to let its collective hair down a bit.
The excited, sold-out room made the performer feel right at home. Filled with enthusiasm while respecting the atmosphere of the building, the mostly 25 to 45-year-old audience took the occasion to show off some of their finer outfits -- certainly the nicest dressed crowd I've seen at a show all year.
Wearing a dark blue sport coat and black pants and sporting his best behavior, Folds had a much more subdued entrance than his show at the Pageant in January of this year. Instead of repeatedly throwing his padded piano stool at the keys, he took a gracious bow to the applauding crowd.
Over the past six years Folds has played sporadic shows with various symphony orchestras around the United States and Australia. But this was not your normal rock show set to symphony arrangements. Folds used his musical chops and humorous lyrics to spice up a potentially stale take on the genre.
Knowing he had some newcomers in the audience, Folds used his storytelling acumen to turn the show into part introduction and part VH1 Storytellers. His long time fans sat interspersed with symphony patrons enjoying the beautiful acoustics of the venue. Folds mixed in his solo material with older favorites from his days fronting Ben Folds Five.
Opening the show to roaring applause from the audience, Folds and the orchestra launched into "Zak and Sara." He slowed things down a bit with some lush orchestration for "Smoke" and "The Ascent of Stan."
For "Effington," his ode to the Illinois town of Effingham located at the crossroads of Interstates 70 and 57, Folds was in full storyteller mode. He said he first noticed the town located roughly 90 miles east of St. Louis while en route to Normal, Ill. from a show in Detroit. That night he made up the song while on stage, but forgot the town’s correct name. Mixing the town with his desire to contact various employers about the help wanted signs he saw, a song was born. He found humor in the fact that a song that he once made up on stage has now been charted for symphony orchestra. During his protracted story he received cat calls from the crowd, but advised that we "Don't want to peak too early."
The first portion of the evening ended with a highlight: "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces." Before playing the song, Folds told the crowd that since he was little he had "musical arrangements running through his head." Last night this version eschewed the fuzz bass of the original and re-imagined the song in what the singer termed as the "gay Broadway version in my head." Funny that the setting made me feel that it was wrong to play a song with the line "kiss my ass goodbye" in such a beautiful space, but in the end it was satisfying -- a perfect song to whet the appetite of the audience and leave them wanting more in the second half.
After a 20 minute intermission, Folds opened the second part of the show with a laid-back version of "Landed," featuring some sweet orchestration, and "Gracie," a song he wrote for his daughter.
Clearly cleaned up and witty for this St. Louis performance, Folds kept some things similar in this version of his stage act. Much like his a capella video for "Working Day," recorded partly at the Pageant this past January, Folds directed the audience through vocal parts including a three-part harmony for "Not The Same." Folds followed the crowd participation portion with a beautiful '60s baroque pop version of the mid '90s Ben Folds Five hit, "Brick." Its piano part suggested that it could have easily been a smash in any era.
The upbeat "Steven's Last Night in Town" brought out the power of the orchestra. The song featured a strong percussion part and a concertmaster violin solo which Folds noted, but he was also very impressed by how the double bass section was "really rocking'" during the performance.
The main set ended with "Narcolepsy" -- a tune about an uncle who used to fall asleep and drive into stuff -- and featuring tenor Cary Marsh, the volunteer choir and the percussion section throwing everything it had at the piece.
For the encore Folds came back to the stage alone. Without introduction he meandered to the back wall to dabble with the percussion instruments. Even long-time fans may not know that Folds had a percussion scholarship to the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. With another exclamation of "rock this bitch" from the audience, Folds proceeded to play his own version of a drum solo as he moved from cymbals, xylophone, bells, tambourine, gong, congas, tom-toms, full drum set, cowbell and timpani. After calls for "more cow bell," Folds hit the cow bell and ran back to the piano to play a solo version of "Army."
As he is wont to do, Folds crafted a short ditty about coming to St. Louis to play the show. After it didn’t go very far he quickly abandoned it and moved back to storyteller mode. Here, Folds related that he had once been star struck when seeing Chuck Berry at the airport. "Damn that's cool," Folds thought to himself at the time -- no matter that the Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer was wearing sweatpants. For good measure -- and with no apparent knowledge of the lyrics -- Folds launched into an excerpt of "Johnny B. Goode," further demonstrating his mastery of the piano.
To round out the evening he ended with "Annie Waits" from his 2001 release "Rockin' the Suburbs," complete with the obligatory emphatic handclaps from the audience. All in all, Folds presented a delightful variation of his typical show -- even if "Rock This Bitch" type moments were few and far between.
Zak and Sara
The Ascent of Stan
One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces
Not the Same
Steven's Last Night In Town
A song made up on the spot
Johnny B. Goode excerpt