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Timothy Finn blogs about the Kansas City music scene

Ben Folds, Kansas City Symphony deliver a rollicking show at Kauffman Center

06/12/2014 11:16 AM

06/12/2014 11:22 AM

Whether performing solo or with his trio, the Ben Folds Five, Ben Folds has an inimitable way of entertaining an audience and getting people involved in his shows.

Wednesday night, Folds had at his disposal the Kansas City Symphony, conducted by Aram Demirjian, and a nine-person choir, led by University of Kansas grad Kerry Mars, for the second of two sold-out shows in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

For two and a half hours, including a 20-minute intermission, Folds and his accomplices delivered a show that was dynamic, energetic and relentlessly entertaining.

Other rock bands have executed performances with orchestras (Metallica comes to mind), but in those cases the orchestras had to compete with the sounds of the amplified band.

Folds brought with him his own drummer and percussionist, Sam Smith, but otherwise left the accompaniment to the Symphony and the choir. They cast most of his songs in grand, cinematic flair, turning several into epic show tunes or escapades in music theater.

They opened with “Effington,” a track from Folds’ 2008 album, “Way to Normal.” From there, Folds would visit songs from all over his solo and Ben Folds Five catalog. Along the way, he would arouse and amuse the crowd of 1,600 by wisecracking, telling funny anecdotes and orchestrating a lavish sing-along.

The set list included a concerto Folds composed, which was preceded by a short dissertation on the definition of a piano concerto. Folds’ composition synthesized his pop chops with a classical sensibility, the perfect compromise for this crowd, which was primarily Folds fans.

They showered him with plenty of cheer throughout the set, even whooping and squealing as they recognized the introduction to songs like “Smoke,” “Landed” and “Not the Same.”

About halfway through, a fan upfront instigated one of Folds’ famous concert rituals by yelling out “Rock This Bitch,” a signal for Folds to create a new song on the spot, which he did. It took a while to organize the many parts for each section of the entire orchestra and the choir. Using roller derby as a theme — based on a comment he’d made at Tuesday’s show — Folds pulled it off, but not without some comic relief: After missing her cue, one of the choir members shouted a mild profanity, sending her fellow choir members, the orchestra and the audience into a fit of laughter.

The finale featured three of his best-known Ben Folds Five songs, including “Brick,” which brought at least one woman in the crowd to tears. Like all that preceded them, these orchestrated versions brought out the musical charms in Folds’ songs — he can be a stunning melodist — without overwhelming his lyrical punch.

He closed with “Narcolepsy,” a song about the sleeping disorder and its effect on a relationship: “I should warn you I go to sleep / You won’t know when I go to sleep because I’m not tired / I’m not tired, I just sleep.” It’s another BFF classic, although it was a bit incongruous because at that point his large audience was still revved up by the extravagant performance that preceded it.

Set list

Effington; Smoke; Jesusland; Picture Window; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (Second and Third Movements); Landed; Fred Jones, Part Two; Steven’s Last Night; intermission; Zak and Sarah; Cologne; Annie Waits; Rock This Bitch; The Luckiest; Not the Same; Brick; One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces; Narcolepsy.

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