This was the response of the first two people I met in the pub after the show. However, the next one said: ‘Ben Folds Five – fantastic, what a great band!’ Quite some time later I discovered that the Ben Folds Five only ever had three members.
I confess to some regrettable musical ignorance, before going to tonight’s sell-out Festival show at Norwich Theatre Royal I had not managed to encounter the music of Mr Folds in many years of eclectic listening. Or the other two in his band, who were not there tonight.
The enthusiastic Norwich audience know exactly who Ben is, and know his songs and indeed are a part of them as he coaches the audiences into various clever four part harmonies on several songs. Ben Folds is a stunningly capable musician and gives the concert Steinway a considerable pounding in a set that lasts over two hours.
Ben is a great showman and enjoys his interaction with the audience which he rightly assumes to be largely familiar with his oeuvre. His songs hint at a complicated life, reflecting frankly on the triumphs and tragedies of relationships. One of his showoff moments involves an energetic drum solo where the entire drum kit is brought rapidly on to stage by assistants while he performs, switching from piano to the drums for just this one item. As soon as he finishes, the kit is equally deftly removed from the stage.
Ben Folds’ music is categorised as ‘alternative’ by some commentators although I struggle to see why. It is alternative in about the same way that buying a Hyundai car instead of a Ford Mondeo would be, and to English ears it seems very mainstream American singer/songwriter fare. He writes pleasantly melodic songs, but I would be lying if I said I could hum the tune of one now. But I enjoyed his show, he is a lively and engaging musician and he plainly enjoys what he his doing. He swears quite a lot, and sings about difficult themes such as teenage abortion (Brick) which is probably enough for the Southern US States to consider him seriously alternative. His piano playing dominates, his voice sometimes lost in the competition with a Steinway being soundly thrashed.
At the end his first encore song was an impromptu composition about Norwich (apparently the only ‘town’ to rhyme with bitch) and some issues he appeared to have with the theatre clothes dryer which delighted the audience, if not the hard working theatre staff.
The first act support was Canadian singer Matt Holubowski, a high register singer who gave us some plaintive songs and clear instructions about pronouncing his name. As you do.
© Julian Swainson 2018