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What Matters Most - Ben Folds at Birmingham Symphony Hall

Ben Folds and his band - Photograph by David Court

Ben Folds – What Matters Most Tour – Birmingham Symphony Hall, 10 November 2023

Review by David Court

Singer/songwriter Ben Folds achieved popularity with (the ironically titled rock trio) ‘Ben Folds Five’ in the mid-nineties, the band's particular blend of piano-led rock a welcome alternative to the traditionally guitar-based scene. Their albums were a dry blend of wit and cynicism, and even then, it was apparent that frontman Ben was a talent to watch. ‘Ben Folds Five’ eventually split up in 2000 (although briefly reunited towards the end of that decade) and he’s been working solo ever since, although frequently can be working on collaborations with a variety of interesting artists such as William Shatner, writers Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman, and Regina Spektor.

The first artistic advisor to American National Symphony Orchestra, Ben has just released ‘What Matters Most’, his fifth studio album operating alone – now meaning he’s released more albums as a solo artist than he did with Ben Folds Five. He’s currently touring it, and we were lucky enough to get tickets for the Birmingham leg, held in the prestigious Symphony Hall.

Singer Lua Noah - Photograph by Tara Court

Lau Noah opens the set, a Catalonian singer-songwriter currently living in New York. Armed only with a guitar, the huge room and growing audience must seem like a daunting prospect – but she instantly charms the crowd with her beautiful voice and refined guitar-playing. Performing songs both in Spanish and English, she’s incredibly well received – and rightfully so – by the attentive crowd. A song towards the end of her set, ‘If a tree falls in love with a river’, has the crowd utterly spellbound – and I’m definitely going to check out her material, based on this masterful performance alone.

Ben arrives on stage accompanied by his band, who include guitarist Tim Harrington and Cellist Paul Wright (who have already been performing together since 2009 under the name ‘Tall Heights’), and Glaswegian bassist Mandy Clarke – one of the most animated and lively guitarists I’ve seen for the longest time.

The set opens with a few tracks from the new album, but Ben is savvy enough to know that very few gig-goers actually go to performances to hear the new stuff, and it’s not long until we’re revisiting some of the best songs from his extensive solo repertoire. He’s just as entertaining between the songs, and Folds delights in regaling us with the background stories behind many of them – he’s as entertaining a storyteller through chat as he is through the distinctive humour in his songs, and it’s impossible not to warm to him.

‘Landed’, from the 2005’s ‘Song for Silverman’ album, hits hard – it’s a song that got a lot of airplay in the UK (especially from Terry Wogan on Radio 2) and tells the story of trying to return to normality after emotional turbulence – there’s barely a dry eye in the house, and it’s a timely reminder that Folds can do heartbreak as well as humour.

Bass guitarist Mandy Clarke - Photograph by David Court

There’s no interval, but there is a brief intermission which sees just the two members of Tall Heights perform (who also treat the crowds outside to an impromptu performance after the show) before the band return for a foray into some of Ben’s rockier numbers.

We’ve seen Ben live a few times (with ‘Ben Folds Five’ and solo), and it almost feels mandatory for him to perform his song ‘Not the Same’ (from 2001’s ‘Rockin’ the Suburbs’) and it’s always a treat – he always gets the audience to perform the harmonies, and the effect of hearing it performed by a crowd is always something quite magical.

It’s a little sad – and somewhat surprising – that they don’t play ‘The Luckiest’ (also from ‘Rockin’ the Suburbs’) – a song which has a particular emotional resonance with us as it was the song chosen for the first dance at our wedding – but it’s still a lovely evening. It’s the first where he hasn’t performed a single song from the ‘Ben Folds Five’ era, but he now has enough solo material to eschew that period of his musical career – time to move on, I guess.

The ‘What Matters Most’ continues through the remainder of 2023, and if you get the opportunity to pick up a ticket, I recommend you snap one up. He might not be rockin’ the suburbs, but he certainly rocked Birmingham Symphony Hall.

(L to R) Ben Folds, Tim Harrington, Paul Wright - Photograph by David Court

Details on the tour can be found here, and details on the Symphony Hall can be found here.


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