Sure, Ben Folds has kind of grown up. He's 45, though he could pass for 10 years younger on a good day. His last record, Lonely Avenue, was a collaboration with British author Nick Hornby, who's had a lot to say about the belated coming-of-age of man-children in the past (About a Boy, High Fidelity). And he's been performing with symphony orchestras for eight years. His first date with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra was Wednesday night, before a sold-out crowd at the Hilbert Circle Theatre.
But even in an ostensibly refined setting, a playfulness remained, as evidenced by the second encore of the night, which saw Folds roaming through the rhythm section, playing a brief riff on, in order, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, marimba, tubular bells, drum set, tympani and celesta. (Folds was a percussion student before he became known for playing piano on the college level; earlier in the show, he recalled fondly his time spent in the orchestra counting out 90 measures to play a single note on the triangle.)
And then he sat down to play the closing number, "Rockin' the Suburbs," which ended with a call-and-response with the audience. Folds: "Better watch out because I'm gonna say..." Audience: (gleefully) "Fuck!" I was reminded of the segment from Zappa's 200 Motels that saw the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recording "Penis Dimension"; the ISO wasn't on the stage for Folds's encores, but the vibe was similar.
But really, isn't that the way things should be? Sure, Folds talked about his respect for the tradition of the symphony orchestra and the importance of music education in schools (suggesting that those in the college a cappella ensembles he judges on TV have taken matters into their own hands by teaching themselves music in the absence of robust music programs in secondary schools).
And, meanwhile, he still plays his playful smart-ass routine to the hilt. His more recent work continues to marry romantic sappiness with college humor (say, "Cologne," a conventionally pretty song that includes a verse about a jilted astronaut who drove 18 hours, while wearing an adult diaper, to murder an ex-boyfriend).
It's no wonder that Folds has made his piano-with-orchestra concerts central to his touring schedule. His songs, even those that originally lacked strings, lend themselves easily to an orchestra setting, with their big, sometimes schmaltzy melodies and chord progressions. And Folds, who, while making his case for music education, mentioned that he put in hours in the practice room during his early years, has both impressive technical chops (no surprise there) as well as the ability to tone down the piano gymnastics a notch in order to let the orchestra do the heavy lifting.
His setlist drew as far back as the second Ben Folds Five album, including a vibrant, energetic arrangement of "Steven's Last Night in Town" (which was written about, as Folds explained, the producer Stephen Short, who said he couldn't love a woman with "cauliflower legs," or, as the song has it, cellulite). And there was plenty of solo material, including a convincing reading of "Picture Window" from his Hornby collaboration.
The first encore offered another glimpse at a younger Ben via "Emaline," the only request Folds took during the show and what he described as the first song that he ever really saw through to completion. Though it dates from before his Ben Folds Five days, it still holds up, and he managed to dress it up with a faux-classical section and other accoutrements.