Ben Folds has a fetish for orchestrating and conducting, and it was on full display Wednesday before a sold-out crowd at the Uptown Theater.
For nearly two hours, Folds led a dynamic six-piece chamber orchestra from New York called yMusic through his deep catalog and various rearrangements of some of his most beloved songs.
As with his most-recent performance in Kansas City at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, where the Kansas City Symphony supported him, Wednesday’s show revealed the dexterity, diversity and adaptability of Folds’ songwriting. But above and beyond all, the show introduced to Kansas City the high-octane precision and power of yMusic.
The show began with a display of the orchestra’s prowess, a five-minute-plus instrumental rendered in strings — cello, viola and violin — and various brass and woodwind instruments. The ensemble comprises six musicians but at times it sounded like an orchestra thrice its size.
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Folds and his drummer, Sam Smith, then took the stage and launched into “So There,” the title track of his most recent album, recorded with yMusic. They followed that with “Long Way to Go,” another “So There” track, during which Folds and the members of yMusic conducted the wave, like fans at a stadium. That set the mood for the show, which was filled with moments of humor, levity and sarcasm.
Folds, 49, a native of North Carolina, came into prominence in the mid-1990s as the founder of the trio he called Ben Folds Five, which released three albums from 1995 to ’99. In 2000, Folds went off on his own and has since released three solo records, a variety of collaborative albums and, in advance of a reunion in 2011, another BFF record. So he has a wealth of material to draw from.
The set list had some of everything, including more than a half a dozen BFF songs. The first of those came late in the first half of the show: “Mess,” a track from the “Reinhold Messner” album. After another instrumental from yMusic, he performed “Evaporated” from the revered “Whatever and Ever Amen.” Folds artfully rearranged his older material for the orchestra, just enough to make it different but not so much that it deconstructed the song. “Evaporated” was a stellar example of that.
Folds is a snarky, funny and often profane entertainer. Before “Way to Normal,” he began introducing his band members. The first of them was violinist Rob Moose, whose introduction instantly turned the Uptown into Kauffman Stadium, as if third baseman Mike Moustakas had just stepped up to the plate. Folds went with the display of affection, and for the rest of his introductions, he gave each band member a nickname and had the crowd cheer it back in unison.
Before “Phone in a Pool,” Folds told the story behind it: In New Orleans, in a fit of frustration, he tossed his BlackBerry into the deep end of a hotel pool. It was immediately retrieved by another of the hotel’s guests, the fully clothed pop singer Ke$ha,who advised him to pack it in rice. At the end of the song, he halted the orchestra not with a wave of his arm but by bellowing “Shut the (bleep) up!”
Throughout the show, yMusic was demonstrative and dynamic, sometimes too much so. During several songs, Folds’ voice ended up immersed in the tide of music swirling around him. He got some spot-on harmonies from Moose and Smith but most noticeably from Alex Sopp, who excelled on the flute and piccolo.
There were many highlights, especially the Ben Folds Five songs: “Erase Me,” “Song for the Dumped” and “Steven’s Last Night in Town.” He opened the two-song encore with “Army,” another song from “Messner,” which aroused a hearty singalong.
He closed with “Not the Same,” a track from his solo “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” Before he started, he orchestrated some crowd participation, separating the audience into three vocal ranges. On cue during the song, nearly everyone issued a two-note “ahhhhh-ahhhhh.” By song’s end, Folds was away from the piano and had the entire room in his thrall, conducting his audience, coaxing them into issuing those notes in short bursts or prolonged gusts.
With a sweep of his arms and a wave of his hands, he brought the song and the evening to an abrupt and precise end, beaming like a guy immersed in his element.
Beautiful Mechanical; So There; Long Way to Go; Not a Fan; Way to Normal; I’m Not the Man; Phone in a Pool; Kansas City song; Mess; Music in Circles; Evaporated; Yes Man; Erase Me; Song for the Dumped; Capable of Anything; Steven’s Last Night in Town; You Don’t Know Me. Encore: Army; Not the Same.