Ben Folds & yMusic – Sage Gateshead – 18.06.2016

We left the kids with Nadine’s parents in Leeds last Saturday night and took the train up to Newcastle where we met up with David (of Mulled fame) to catch Ben Folds in concert. I had seen him live twice previously and was blown away each time. Both occasions were before I started writing about gigs on this site, so I don’t have any details to refresh my memory, but I do know that he played his most popular songs. This time it was quite different.

yMusic is a New York-based ensemble with three string players and three wind/brass players. Ben Folds has been making music with them for the last while, presumably with a view to keeping things interesting for himself. And it’s interesting for his audience too, if not quite as entertaining as his usual solo or piano plus drums and bass shows.

I didn’t know any of the material that he has written for this collaboration with yMusic (on the album So There) and it didn’t make a lasting impression. (The only exception was the song I’m Not The Man, which has a really nice list-based ending: “I used to be my father’s son, I used to be number one, I used to be paper and pencil, I used to be endless potential” and so on.) But I enjoyed listening to and watching them. Folds sits in the middle behind an upright piano, so all you can see is his happy head and shoulders most of the time – a bit unnerving. The players in yMusic are clearly very talented and the arrangements were impressive.

The evening only really picked up when they started playing “the hits”. The older songs he played were probably chosen based on being ones that could work well with the additional instrumentation. Steven’s Last Night In Town was perfect in this regard (a bit more lively than the version below); Song For The Dumped worked in an odd way; and the encore of Not The Same, with no piano at all and lots of audience participation, was great.

Folds played three or four songs solo just ahead of the encore and while it was good to hear him perform them live, they were not among my favourites. They were seemingly based on audience requests and included Boxing and Lullaby.

The venue is pretty great, although I wouldn’t normally choose to see a pop/rock artist in a seated venue. I suppose it suited the line-up he was playing with, but it didn’t make for a good atmosphere.

I was happy to see him live again. He’s a truly great songwriter and I respect the fact that he wants to experiment a bit and change things up.

By the way, if you’ve never watched him doing his song Army live, with the audience singing the brass parts, it’s worth checking out… see below, from a live session he did for MySpace (!!) . David and I tried this in Mulligans of Geneva a couple of times and it worked pretty well. Great buzz!

P.S. On the journey up to Newcastle our train was overtaken by the Flying Scotsman pulling about 12 carriages. It was very cool seeing a steam engine up close like that. We got a chance to see it again at York station, which is where the photo below was taken.

The Flying Scotsman at York station

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