July 13, 2008

Ben Folds: Sheffield 8th July

Sheffield is a weird place. I’ve been to most of the UK’s cities, but this was my first trip particular one, I wasn’t even sure where it was. As soon as you leave the train station you’re confronted by these big fountains and massive soaring metallic structures that form the metro line. It’s like you accidentally caught a train into the future. At least until you move a bit further out and realise the whole thing meshes with 1940s brickwork that means it all somewhat resembles a world taken over by by a technically superior alien race.

I followed the directions to the hotel that I’d jotted down and ended up at a big roundabout. I could see the Travelodge I was staying at, just down from the second exit as it should be. One small problem: no footpath on that road. See, Sheffield has possibly the most comprehensive public transport system I’ve ever seen. Along with the massive, domineering tram system comes a frighteningly huge “public transport hub” which also serves as a base for the crazy number of buses I encountered picking my way through the town centre to try and reach the hotel from another direction. Problem is that doing this they’ve made it impossible to walk anywhere, which somewhat defeats the point I feel.

Anyway, eventually the correct route to the hotel is located (through some rather dodgy looking subways which I’ll affectionately now refer to as ‘Brown Sector’), then onto the pub and eventually the venue, meeting up with Euan, Andy and the delightful and charming Anna Waits (she gets both the adjectives, as she’s probably the only one of the three that will read this).

So to the gig, and for once the support act wasn’t Eef Barzelay but was Corn Mo who opened with a fairly shit dirge on the accordion that seemed to go on for about five minutes while most of the audience talked over it. Not good. But then he busts into this brilliant upbeat number that’s about two minutes long and by the time he’s done, everyone has shut up. It’s awesome. He does that looping thing that solo musicians love so much these days, but with an accordion which is certainly a first. The between song banter is just, well, weird. Mid-set he switches to an electric piano for a few songs (which is funny in itself, given there’s a Grand on the stage) and does an utterly straight accordion cover of We Are The Champions. It sort of falls apart at the end when he performs to a backing track but I’m won over by then. Unfortunately looking at his Myspace most of the songs are ruined by being properly produced with drums and stuff. Which just robs them of all their charm. Lollipop is still quite fun though.

So onto Ben’s show. We jokingly laugh at the fact that he opens with Errant Dog, just like every show he’s played for the past 4 months. It’s a track off the new album and I think it’s awesome. I’m really looking forward to the new album, as to be honest I never really got on with Songs For Silverman. We’re now expecting him to play Gone next, like every other show for the past 4 months, but he looks up at Sam and tells him to stop and they end up playing You To Thank instead, and becomes apparently that the show’s going to be a lot more fluid than your regular Folds show.

Free Coffee is next, which is one of the tracks off the new album I don’t quite get on with, it’s a great idea to use a distortion pedal and tins to make his piano sound like a C64 synthesiser, but the song isn’t great. Then he moves onto Annie Waits which I’ve always really liked, such a sad song but there’s something upbeat about it. Also, turns out people in Sheffield can clap in time, unlike those from the South. Followed up by Landed (which really did make it’s mark as a ‘single’ over here it seems) and my favourite of the new ones, Hiroshima. So far, so typical Ben Folds gig.

But then it gets weird. Some people are drunkenly heckling him to play the jingles he wrote for a Tokyo radio station (“Don’t touch that dial, it’s got Jam on it!”). And Ben obliges, along with telling the story behind them. It’s amazing he can remember them (it takes a few minutes) and it just shows how really seriously Folds doesn’t take himself, and why his shows are so much more fun for it.
Next, Battle of Who Could Care Less. Hell yes. Not sure I’ve ever heard this done live before, certainly not with a band. It’s brilliant, by this time the crowd are really into it. This is something special. And personally it’s a song I really relate to.
Time for a quick Rock This Bitch improv and a story about Ben having his shoe stolen in Sheffield. Apparently he tells it every time he plays here, so obviously it’s new to me. Rock This Bitch is pretty much something he has to do every show now, just to shut people up which sort of sucks, but planning it in advance and having a decent tune and just shouting Rock This Bitch at the end of it seems to help.
Zak and Sara gets everyone dancing (or at least, gets me looking like a spastic having a fit) and storms us into a slower part of the set with Still Fighting It and Jesusland. Then: Underground. Again, first time seeing it done with a band and it almost feels like I’m seeing the Ben Folds Five I never got to see. And all I can see in my head are those crazy dudes dancing to it on the Sessions at West 54th DVD. For a little while, I am a crazy dude. Then another nice surprise: Such Great Heights. Bitches Ain’t Shit has been the token cover version in a Ben Folds set for so long now this sort of got side-lined as it’s not as funny. It’s an awesome tune though and I really love it.

Time for the solo section of the set, as Ben makes a sort of piano playing gesture with his fingers at Sam and Jared to let them know to leave for a bit. I guess that’s the best action he could do really. A shooing motion seems somewhat rude and nothing else would really fit.
The solo section is bookended rather predictably by Fred Jones Part II (with the audience having the backing vocals down pat) and Gracie (still bores me) but in between we get Emaline and Tom and Mary. Yeah you read that right. Emaline was my favourite Folds song for a long time but I sort of burned out on it after a while, but it’s as fresh as ever now. And Tom and Mary. He hasn’t played Tom and Mary since when he was with the Five as far as I know. Apparently he did it the night before but screwed it up. So that’s all pretty cool.

Then the band come back (piano fingers in the air again) and he plays Kylie from Conneticut, another new track and the other one I don’t really get on with. Then he does do Bitches Ain’t Shit after all, it’s developed a fancy new fast ending though but it really is at the point where it needs retiring now. And no-one was even shouting for it. It’s still fun though. Then Bastard takes us into Rockin The Suburbs. He starts out playing it on the synth, then switches to piano. I’ve always preferred the piano based versions of this track to the record version, which is pretty much a joke-song. It seems to have a renewed sense of vigour, and actually sounds like what I imagine it would have sounded like had Ben written it with Robert and Darren. Kate keeps the pace up, it tends to make me think of my friend Kate for some reason. I mean, for one obvious reason, but then she doesn’t smoke pot and isn’t everything I’m not so… yeah. This is why I don’t do music reviews professionally.

Some more improv about how the piano sucks (we hadn’t noticed) and an attempt at the Peanuts theme (which I didn’t recognise but fortunately Anna did so now it makes sense!). Then Army and they’re off. They milk the encore a bit then run back on before the crowd gives up for Philosophy. It goes into the Theme From Doctor Pyser in the middle as it has done live for many years ago, but then it doesn’t come back out, instead just stays there with that awesome Pyser ending which is frankly a much more auspicious way to end the set. Then they’re gone again. Only one song in the encore, but one can’t complain when they did about 25 of them and played two hours almost straight through.

Definitely the best I’ve ever seen him play, and just a genuinely great day, watching cool music and hanging out with awesome people. Roll on November…

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