Ben Folds played with six-piece classical ensemble yMusic at the Fillmore May 6. Folds is one of my biggest inspirations as a songwriter and piano player, so I was ready to see him tear the roof off what has become one of my favorite large-scale venues in Philly. The last time I saw him was back in 2014, when he played at the Mann Center with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and that show was absolutely incredible. Folds has been a big name in the music scene since the ’90s, and he’s got a pretty impressive discography to show for it.
The Fillmore Philadelphia in Fishtown is modeled after the legendary Fillmore Auditorium down to the last detail. It has to be said that the sound there is truly wonderful; it’s never too loud or too quiet, the mix is well balanced and the acoustics are great. There is always a good light show to highlight whomever is playing on their large stage. The main auditorium has not one but three bars, along with a large balcony section that wraps around the sides and back of the room.
After the lights went down for Ben Folds, yMusic came onstage and performed one of their original songs, before Folds himself finally walked on and took his place at the piano. The setup was a little questionable, with Folds tucked in the very back of the stage and the six members of yMusic fanning out in front of him in a V formation. On top of that, the back of his upright piano was facing the audience, so all we could really see was a floating head.
He launched right into “So There,” the eponymous track from his newest studio album, which was a collaboration with yMusic. I was pretty disappointed with the album, so I wasn’t too psyched to hear them play tracks from it. Maybe it’s just me, but I thought the songs on “So There” were pretty sub-par in terms of songwriting. If I’m being honest, pretty much everything Folds has written in the past 10 years has been pretty lame. Unfortunately, almost half the setlist was comprised of songs from “So There.” C’mon, Ben. Either prove to us that you’re not past your prime or just play the hits.
A few numbers in, he busted out his “Rock This Bitch” for the night. For those who don’t know, “Rock This Bitch” is not an actual song, but a point in the show during which he improvises with some chords, adding lyrics based on what is basically just a stream of consciousness. It used to be a pretty funny shtick, but of late it just feels forced and uninspired (he has made it a part of his setlists since its debut in 2002).
Also included in the setlist were two tracks off his 2008 album, “Way to Normal” (ugh). At some point in the middle of the setlist, he pulled out the 1999 Ben Folds Five song “Mess,” which was actually really cool and probably the high point of the night for me. The song is truly a gem; the album “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner” was received pretty negatively at the time of its release, so it was nice to hear justice done to the song.
Immediately after, Folds left the stage and yMusic performed another original classical piece. They played with impressive skill and precision, but judging by the audience’s reaction, it wasn’t what people came to see.
Later in the set, they played “Song for the Dumped,” off Ben Folds Five’s 1997 landmark album, “Whatever and Ever Amen.” YMusic kicked the song off with an impressive, extended intro that got me really excited — but I was let down as soon as Folds started to sing. They completely bastardized the song, toning down the bitter, sarcastic delivery of the lines (such as “give me my money back, you bitch”) and stripping away the raw energy the song should inherently have. The performance was noticeably slower and more tame, which ruined the song for me.
After singing “You Don’t Know Me” with yMusic flutist Alex Sopp on vocals, Folds left the stage. Before he came back on, I asked a visibly disappointed and drunk man standing next to me what he thought Folds would play for the encore. “Bullshit probably,” he said. “Just like everything else he’s played tonight.” Yeah, I feel your pain, drunk guy.
When Folds came back out, he pulled out the fan favorite, “Not The Same,” during which the crowd traditionally sings along in three-part harmony during the chorus. To lead off, he climbed on top of his piano with his microphone and continued to sing the rest of the song, making his way around the front of the stage. Now, Folds did not make a name for himself in the music world because of his singing abilities, so I was less than impressed to see the piano go by the wayside for what is usually one of my favorite numbers. He closed out the set with the classic “Army,” which is always amazing, but it was too little too late, in my opinion.
I think a lot of fans, myself included, were pretty disappointed that Folds played so many new songs, neglecting his incredibly lush back catalogue. YMusic is an incredibly talented group of performers, and I would probably consider seeing them at a show of their own, but their collaboration album with Ben Folds did not suit me well. Next time Folds comes around, I just hope he ditches the new songs and plays more of what the fans want to hear.