Piano-Pop rocks with strings, Ben Folds delivers with Boston Pops

A review of Ben Folds with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall on October 2, 2009

, Staff Writer

There’s nothing typical about Ben Folds. He’s made a name for himself pounding out angry rock jams on the keys, penning soft ballads, covering Eazy-E, and peppering his concerts with strangely comforting profanity. Friday night’s performance with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall was another chapter in the nerdy piano man’s eccentric career.

The audience was a (nonviolent) mix of kids in hoodies and old men in suits, all sheltered under the lush décor of the hall, none of them really knowing what to expect. As members of the Pops orchestra filed onstage and tuned their instruments, a hushed excitement fell over everyone, which turned into an eruption of applause as Folds entered the stage with conductor Keith Lockhart. Another silence followed, which was broken by the chorus singing the opening lines to “Effington”. Folds himself stayed quiet during the opening, as a harmony of voices belted out “If there’s a God, he’s laughing at us and our football team.” From the very beginning, it was apparent that this wasn’t your typical night at the symphony.

The nearly two-hour set touched on music from throughout Fold’s career. A lushly arranged version of the Ben Folds Five classic “Smoke” appeared early on, followed by “The Ascent of Stan,” and “Zak and Sara,” from his 2001 solo release, Rockin’ The Suburbs. Folds is a great musician to perform in an arena like this, bringing some classical sensibilities and a love for wise-ass rock n’ roll. His banter with Lockhart was hilarious, and he seemed to try his hardest to avoid profanity, though a few choice words “accidentally” slipped through. (And no, he didn’t play, “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” to the chagrin of many.)

After telling a hilarious story about improvising songs while high on codeine onstage in Germany, Folds turned out a beautifully sentimental version of “Cologne,” which, despite the silly lyrics is a haunting ballad of remorse and loss. After a rousing version of “Jesusland,” from 2005’s Songs for Silverman, Folds gave the Pops a rest and played a few new songs alone on from his upcoming collaboration with British author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy). Sitting alone at his Steinway, Folds’ quiet tenor played a perfect companion to Hornby’s cynically melancholy lyrics. “Days Like These,” is a bittersweet epiphany, with a chorus that went something like “You know what hope is/ hope is a bastard/ hope is a liar, a cheat and a tease.” “Belinda” tells the story of a washed-up rock star who has to get onstage and sing his one hit about an ex-girlfriend every night. Both songs were met with excited support from the audience, along with a strange revelation that Ben Folds could be a character from one of Hornby’s novels.

The most orchestral song of the night was undoubtedly an extended version of “Narcolepsy,” which took full advantage of the orchestra and cranked things up to eleven. The sheer amount of music coming from the stage was overwhelming and exhilarating. The set ended with a rabblerousing jam on “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” which was the closest the night got to a rock show.

After walking offstage and immediately returning, Folds made a dedication to his wife, then played the lovesick ballad “The Luckiest”. Keith Lockhart stood, the symphony bowed and left the stage, but Folds remained, jamming out a little segway that’s probably titled something like “I’m Rockin’ With the Boston Motherfuckin’ Pops,” before going ape on “Army,” which had the crowd replacing the orchestra and jumping in their seat, forgetting any sense of decorum that remained.

Openers Family of the Year excelled in the opening slot. Playing to a nearly empty hall, they couldn’t hide their excitement at simply being onstage in such a revered venue. Singer Vanessa Long’s sweet, raspy, and painfully cute voice was the highlight, and in a smaller venue these guys could be a really great time. It was an obvious challenge to play to such a small number of people in a large space, and Family of the Year rose to the occasion.

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