BEN FOLDS | Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Ben Folds’ association with jazz runs deeper than the wailing klezma clarinet on Steven’s Last Night in Town, or the wry Gershwin quotation hidden in the piano solo on Philosophy. Listen beyond the irresistible alt-rock pop melodies and there are arrangements and voicings that put Folds’ billing at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival beyond doubt.

Recent incarnations of Ben Folds’ tours have included collaborations with symphony orchestras and chamber groups, so there was a solitary vulnerability to seeing him on stage with just a grand piano for company. Far from alone, Folds had an eager choir in his audience who dutifully inserted the missing backing vocals or horn parts without the need for prompting. Most already knew the harmonies on Not the Same but were happy to play the role of student to Folds’ conducting, and equally instinctively knew exactly where to place the clap during Annie Waits.

Ben Folds isn’t one to shy away from loading his songs with the bombast of fuzzing basslines, but with the instrumentation stripped to its most basic there was a chance to hear his lyrics afresh. If the melodies weren’t hook enough, Folds’ lyrics are a potent mix of desert-dry wit and desperate poignancy with a host of characters that could overcrowd a family photo album. A rare performance of Uncle Walter, the story of a mad relative rambling about how perfect the world would be if he were president (“call me Nostradamus motherfuckers,” pleads Folds with hindsight), is one of many that got mid-song laughs as though they weren’t penned twenty years ago. Stripped back to just piano and vocals, All U Can Eat‘s scathing critique on consumerism cut deeper and harder.

During the suppressed middle-class privileged anarchy of Rockin’ the Suburbs Folds pounded the piano with the same youthful aggression of 2001, whilst his tender touch and vocal on The Luckiest reached maximum romance. Whatever* Ben Folds next musical step may be, it felt a privilege to be witness to this one.

*and Ever Amen

 

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