Theatre Royal, Hobart TAS
February 13th, 2018
Support: Lucy Rose
If you’re following along my adventures, you’d be familiar with the fact that I recently abandoned my lifelong home of Brisbane, and moved to a place where it snows in the summer: Hobart. Since arriving here, my introduction to the live scene was with Frenzal Rhomb at The Brisbane Hotel. Of course, then, it makes sense that my next assignment would be a solo Ben Folds at a venue called the Theatre Royal.
For those playing along at home, this contrast is about as big as they come in nearly fundamental every way. Where the Brisbane is this punk bazaar grotto that has a looming feeling like you may get into a fistfight at any given moment, the Royal is pretty much the exact opposite of that. They have gilded banisters. Actually, pretty much everything is gilded there — up to and including toilet handles. It’s this beautiful Victorian-era masterpiece (originally it was named for the Queen in question before adopting the current moniker), holding the title as Australia’s oldest continuously-operating theatre. If you’re a bit… proletariat shall we say… you do somewhat stick out.
As a press reviewer, you almost feel like you’re causing a major scene simply because your camera shutter is causing such a noise that slams over the top of the humming silence that surrounds you. I’m not unfamiliar with the venue — I saw one of Ben’s old collaborators, Henry Rollins (the two were co-conspirators on William Shatner‘s coup de grace, Has Been), there back in 2016. If anything, I’m more taken with the building now than I was back then. We all start to fill into our seats (laid out over three levels; one ground general seating, and two ring galleries above), and listen to the tannoy serenade us with a selection of popular music from decades long since passed. Out of the darkness, an English lass, Lucy Rose emerges. Not being familiar with her work previously, I was totally unsure what to expect of the set – when a girl with a funny accent, holding a guitar, wanders onto stage with no accompaniment, you do start to wonder where the hell your life has gone wrong and what is about to occupy the next half-hour or so of your life.
Thankfully, what did actually occupy the next half-hour or so was one of the most pleasant support experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve genuinely never seen a support act hold a crowd so well, causing riotous laughter as much as she was applause during song breaks. Her anecdotes were witty and charming, and she spoke with a candidness many could only dream of. And to top it off – she’s actually a bloody fantastic musician too. She sings with a powerful but delicate voice, recalling of the likes of Kate Miller-Heidke, Chan Marshall (of Cat Power fame), and Jewel, and plays her guitar with a revere that shows she genuinely loves her craft. She switches between a steel-stringed acoustic and a semi-hollow electric guitar several times throughout the set, totally transforming the mood of her sound as she went. The building is probably about the most flattering sonic signature one could hope for – the thickness of the reverberated tone was enough to make one’s hair stand on end. The crowd love her. The applause rings around the venue like whipcrack, and the cheers echo off the walls. Her witty banter and frank, almost- self-deprecating anecdote is merely icing on an otherwise very sweet set. It’s easy to understand why Ben chose her to accompany him as his tourmate, and it sets the bar very high for the upcoming main set.
The intermission rolls on, and we await the reason we are here: an intimate, so-called “Paper Airplane Request” show. For those of you curious, there’s very little subtext to the concept: you literally throw paper planes at the stage with requests on them. It’s a creative way to cut down on the old “Free Bird” hecklers of old. Fun fact: Ben Folds, despite his successes in the industry, still does his own announcements — and they’re funny. His antics speak to a sarcastic humour that has always resonated within much of his musical catalogue, appealing to the darkly snickering bastard within us all. Most of his anecdotes that he uses to fill spaces between songs really illustrate that point, covering topics ranging from the bizarre (nearly being stabbed in a green room in Cincinnati by a “not a fan” who took exception to the subject matter of his breakthrough hit, Brick), the absurd (describing how his parents and their friends would get drunk and talk about what they’d do as president), to the downright cringe worthy (drawing implied comparison between prematurely “launching” one’s paper plane request and premature ejaculation). Nary a frown can exist in such a space. And even if it could, the likelihood is that it would be drawn from the musical subject matter, which at times could be best described as “fucking depressing“.
The solemnity of those subjects being performed on a solo grand piano in a cavernous space like the Royal isn’t lost on the crowd — everybody is sitting in awed silence for the sad parts. Thankfully, they’re broken up quite nicely by his brand of sarcastic piano rock, taking us through a fairly wide swathe of the fruits of his nearly 3 decades in the industry, spanning both his solo work and Ben Folds Five. At moments his sound is delicate and almost like a child’s jewellery box singing out lullabies to soothe; other times it’s apparent that he sometimes holds his instrument with such disdain you’re amazed he stopped short of setting it alight. That instrument (one he recalls hauling around in the back of a van during the early days, and measuring the success of BFF’s chart breakthrough in the ability to pay somebody else to do that) is not infallible — it breaks strings several times throughout the evening — but it serves the venue just right. It exists somewhere in a strange space between melody-maker, percussive instrument, and punching bag. Top it off with his sometimes pained wails, and you’re transported back to the mid-1990s when this whole guy at a piano playing rock songs thing became popular. The set carries on with a flurried pace, crossing over a variety of sounds and moods to keep the audience engaged.
He encourages us to join in and sing along, even going so far as to break the crowd into four distinct groups of chorus to act as an acapella symphony for him in leiu of a backup band. It’s apparent why he’s been so long-tenured in the industry: he enjoys this. The crowd, in kind, plainly love him. Eventually we reach the part of the show closing in on the intermission. He lays down some ground rules for the request portion of the set: he generally won’t play other people’s songs, but mostly only because he doesn’t know them (Kanye West‘s ‘Gold Digger‘ is one such song), and he will drop any request which is illegible. Fair enough, really. He rounds out the first half with a jaunty rendition of ‘Stephen’s Last Night In Town‘. Mostly. I say “mostly” because before actually finishing the song, a birthday cake emerges from stage left, and the entire venue is filled with their best Happy Birthday rendition. Amongst the confusion, a drum kit also arrives, and Ben plays an impromptu solo I’m not entirely sure wasn’t a mimic of John Bonham‘s on ‘Moby Dick’, circa The Song Remains The Same.
He evacuates the stage and the lights come up. After a warm wait, we’re given a countdown warning: 3 minutes. After that, the stage would suddenly become filled with a flurry of paper and cheers. The requests are generally fairly par for the course — visiting mostly his earlier BFF numbers, with a few oddities thrown in — Elton John‘s ‘Tiny Dancer‘, and George Michael‘s ‘Careless Whisper‘ (played while technicians fix broken strings inside of the piano body, no less). It’s hard not to have memories of watching the MTV Unplugged series in the mid-90s at this point, with the sound being stripped down but remaining powerfully reminiscent of the records the songs are lifted from. So often the crowd is singing along with fervent enthusiasm, almost to the point of causing momentary deafness. We’re into it. He’s into it. Really, this is the thing we all came for, so it’s nice to see our patience rewarded.
A highlight of this precession has to be during ‘Rocking The Suburbs‘ (a rendition complete with Folds beatboxing his drum part), with the entire audience shouting “FUCK” back at him with the greatest of intensity they could muster. It’s hard to imagine such language having occupied the walls of this venue before, and certainly with the level of volume that it carried. The set winds out, finishing with a fan favourite, ‘Army‘. By this point, nearly everybody is franticly dancing in their chair, both excited to have seen what we’ve seen, and melancholic that soon it would be over. And so it was. He re-emerged to play us one final number, ‘One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces‘, and took his final bow. What an absolute sterling way to spend an evening.