Review Ben Folds & yMusic support Lera Lynn WMC by Jon Mohajer

NEW BlackPianoDownFinal1 WITH YMUSIC
 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

In a beautifully fitting close to Cardiff’s premier Festival of Voice, Ben Folds stood at the edge of the stage in a packed out Donald Gordon Theatre and conducted the audience to sing in wondrous three-part harmony. Playing the left and right sides of the impromptu choir with subtle motions of each hand, the veteran song-writer composed pop melodies of the swelling voices as effortlessly as if he was at home, sat at his piano.

Ben Folds’ standing ovation was well-deserved. Since 1995, Folds has consistently released smart, unconventional and above all catchy pop music, initially with the rock oriented Ben Folds Five, and later a ‘solo’ career which saw a shift towards more multi-timbral arrangements.

The latest project for Folds showcased in 2015’s ‘So There’ LP, is a collaboration with Brooklyn-based chamber sextet.

The group appeared onstage with Folds in Cardiff, displaying incredible skill in each of their instruments; violin, viola, cello, trumpet, flute and clarinet. While some singers may recruit players to add a layer of grandeur and schmaltz to their performances, the contribution of yMusic served an altogether different function, building up tension through tremolo and explosive flourishes. The tonal match to Folds’ lyrical expression of anxieties around growing older, breakdowns and the rest was remarkable. His distinctive voice flawlessly dipped in and out of falsetto register, while he pounded at an electric Yamaha piano. In fact, Folds shared onstage that his technique is so forceful, it had Jools Holland fearing for his piano’s integrity after the first Ben Folds Five appearance on his show.

The set centred around songs from ‘So There’ such as the title track, a reflection on the nervous anticipation of reinvention in a new city; ‘Capable of Anything’, a wry jab at the easy slogans (‘And I’m sure they meant you could be president’) which in fact work both ways; ‘Not a Fan’, a tender waltz packed with self-doubt and irony (‘You’re so well read; I grew up on sugar cereal and TV’). Several older songs were given a chamber sextet reinterpretation, like ‘Effington’, ‘Mess’, ‘Song For The Dumped’ and ‘Steven’s Last Night in Town’. The latter journeyed through incredible, expansive jazz drum and clarinet solos before reconvening around the theme.

In a recent interview Folds stated that he aims to divorce himself from listeners who aren’t tolerant of humour. On his first visit to Wales, Folds quickly befriended the crowd with his spontaneous wit and storytelling. Many years ago, a fan’s yell of ‘Rock This Bitch’ during a show gave rise to what would become a staple of Ben Folds’ live performances. The phrase, or variants of it, are sung over a freshly composed piece of music, with verse lyrics updated to tell the story of the day. Of course, Folds sought out the Welsh translation for the phrase, and after some initial bemusement at the seeming lack of Welsh speakers in the Welsh capital, took ‘rociwch y ast’ back to his piano.

Long term fans of Folds were treated during his encore to older hits like ‘Philosophy’, ‘Not The Same’ and ‘All U Can Eat’, a simultaneously hilarious and profound take on Walmart culture. Here’s to hoping Ben doesn’t keep us waiting another 20 years before visiting Wales again!

Lera Lynn, a singer of Nashville, TN opened the evening with atmospheric, minimalist country rock/americana. Her voice was incredibly rich, deep and strong, punching through the unsettling minor key arpeggios of her own guitar and that of a second which provided a thick spring reverb-drenched counterpoint. I sat back in my seat, closed my eyes, and felt sure I’d reopen them upon endless plains of North American desert.

Sunday 12th June
Festival of Voice:
Wales Millennium Centre (Donald Gordon Theatre)

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