Ben Folds – The Anvil, Basingstoke, UK (22nd May 2018)

Having spent a lot of the last few years on the road with his chamber orchestra yMusic and performing with countless full-size orchestras, Ben Folds has returned to simplicity and brings it back to basics.

After an opening set from Matt Holubowski full of impressive guitar playing, but slightly dreary early Bon Iver-esque tunes, it was time for Ben Folds’ first Basingstoke show. The dark stage is lit by very slowly changing red, blue and green lights while Folds takes to the grand piano that he later reveals to have abused in rehearsal due to being ‘the weirdest thing I’ve ever played’.

Opening with ‘Phone In A Pool’ from 2016’s ‘So There’, Folds moves through a diverse setlist that spreads pretty much his entire 30 year career. ‘Annie Waits’ gets the audience involved early on in the show, setting up a recurring theme of the night, while ‘All U Can Eat’ is a treat for dedicated fans who are looking to see some lesser known tracks. Known for his stories between tunes, ‘Uncle Walter’ is introduced by a, quite unrelatable to the Basingstoke crowd, story about how old southern American adults get drunk and tell kids the things they’d do if they were president. He even forgets a few words during the song and politely stops like a kid in a piano lesson and hums to himself to remember them before continuing. Other story highlights from the night included a tale of writing a break-up song while perched on top of moving boxes, and the tale of ‘Steven’s Last Night In Town’.

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Everyone in the room is in awe of Folds’ talent and due to the serene quality of the venue and the acoustic nature of the performance, singing along to his excellent lyrics isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Everyone in the room thinks they’re being subtle, impressing the person next to them with their encyclopaedic knowledge of every lyric by singing in a very quiet whisper, but when we get to a particularly sibilant word the room is suddenly filled with the sound of a thousand very quietly hissing snakes. His skill at the piano is second to none and after a particularly exciting solo (be it improvised or replicating the studio recording) the audience revel the virtuosity every time, with cheers and claps rather than low hisses.

If there was one thing this intimate, relaxed show full of solo piano work and humour was not expecting, it was a blistering drum solo. But that is indeed what we got. During a perfect rendition of the normally clarinet led ‘Steven’s Last Night In Town’, a flustered roadie clambered across the stage, floor tom held high and drum sticks in hand, ready for Ben to take over for the drum break of the tune. As he walked over to the mic set up and drum mat that have been waiting empty and idle for the entire show, the stage crew began to form a drum kit (left handed set up, interestingly) around Folds. It’s a bizarre sight to see such a recognisable pianist on an instrument that is very clearly not a piano, but due to his years as a drum student many years ago, his control of the instrument and playing technique is beyond even his piano talent and we are treated to a rocky, jazzy tour of the kit culminating in a self-confessed feeble attempt at a drum stick trick.

After the unexpected interlude, we return to our typical Ben Folds show, with audience participation heading up tracks like ‘You Don’t Know Me’, where we perfectly replicate every single one of Regina Spektor’s vocal parts, and ‘Bastard’, where a complex 4-part harmony confuses pretty much everyone in the room. It is ‘Not The Same’ that really gives you goosebumps though, where the Folds turns the entire audience into an incredible choir in under 60 seconds, and ‘Army’, where completely unprepared, the audience are able to burst into the call and response melody as soon as Folds turns to conduct.

Ben Folds has been performing in many different contexts for about 30 years, but it is when he is alone with his piano that he captures them all. From the aggressive piano-punk of ‘One Angry Dwarf’, to the classical tinged ‘So There’ and the beautiful ballad ‘The Luckiest’, he is able to bring out the essence of every song that his devoted audience know inside out.

The Ben Folds And A Piano tour continues across the UK this month.