Review: Ben Folds at Festival Theatre

Songs, anecdotes and airmail filled the Festival Theatre for former resident Ben Folds and his special guest Lucy Rose.

Heat makes for slow walking and thirsty audience members, so the Festival Theatre takes a while to fill up before the night kicks off with opener Lucy Rose.

It’s “the poshest place I’ve ever played” Rose says of the theatre as she switches between acoustic and electric guitars. It’s a short set to warm up the already hot audience for Ben Folds, but Rose’s performance is one of honest, evocative tunes, sitting well alongside her self-deprecating anecdotes between songs. These stories of rescuing Paraguayan fans from bullish customs officials and befriending Adelaideans ready the crowd for Folds’ own self-effacing, story-filled set. A set that will also feature audience requests delivered to Folds via airmail.

The intermission is an opportunity for the audience to refresh and chat about the song they’ll write on the airmail that will be delivered on stage. Some punters have even pre-made paper planes, ranging in complexity from expertly constructed A4 numbers to the colourful how-much-did-that-person-spend-at-Officeworks planes.

The crowd is in raptures when Folds arrives on stage, and told that the planes will only fly in the second half of the show after Folds has played his way through a planned 10-song set. Settle down, folks.

Accompanied only by a grand piano, Ben Folds would cut a lonely figure on stage if not for the auditorium’s obvious affection for the singer/songwriter. Phone in a Pool, a cut from Folds’ 2015 album So There kicks off the show and is backed up by Annie Waits, hailing from his 2001 album Rockin’ the Suburbs. The pairing gels well, showing that while Folds’ output is prodigious, he has a style all his own.

Folds discloses the inspiration behind many of the songs he performs, including the hair-raising story of how someone pulling a knife in a dressing room gave rise to Not a Fan to the presumed wisdom of Folds’ elders taken down in Uncle Walter.

Audience involvement is something else at a Ben Folds show. There are, as to be expected, sing-alongs, requisite clapping and even multi-level harmonies at Folds’ request. But the true gem comes during the Folds/Regina Spektor duet You Don’t Know Me, where a chorus of audience members more than capably fill in for Spektor, prompting Folds’ to commend the “good singers out there” at song’s end. It appears that these audience members do know Folds, at least a bit.

Then, of course, there’s the Adelaide connection, as Folds was a one-time resident of the city. Not many would have been disappointed by the intervening stories about Beulah Park, King William Road (“or is it Street?”) and nippy North Adelaide horses that punctuate his performance, culminating in a performance of Adelaide.

These anecdotes flow more freely once the planes have been thrown so ecstatically by audience members in the second half, particularly in an epic rendition of the improvised-in-joke Rock This Bitch, which Folds reminds us went through “three stories and five keys!”

The paper plane requests give rise to an unsurprisingly older batch of songs from Folds. It’s the first few rows who manage to land their planes on the stage, plus some skilled plane folders on the mezzanine. They are rewarded with performances of Army, Zak and Sara, My Philosophy, One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces and a cover of Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. The evening of music, storytelling and improvisation comes to an end with You Were Not the Same.

On paper the 20-plus song performance from Folds’ wide back-catalogue seems long, but for the paper plane-making audience strolling out into 11pm heat, it flew by.

Ben Folds performed at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Festival Theatre on Friday, February 9.

Photography: Andreas Heuer – AKPhotography

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