Ben Folds with yMusic, Royal Opera House, review: 'dry wit'

Ben Folds in concert with ymusic at the Royal Opera House
Ben Folds in concert with ymusic at the Royal Opera House Credit: Goodgroves/REX Shutterstock

You can never predict what Ben Folds is going to do next. He gained a following in the late Nineties for his literate pop with the Ben Folds Five, moved on to more introspective solo work and then chose the most bizarre of collaborators in actor William Shatner and musical parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic. Now he’s hooked up with the talented instrumental outfit yMusic and the result is a lush and sweeping sound that worked magnificently within the grand setting of the Royal Opera House.

Folds lumbered on to the stage looking like a cross between Shaggy from Scooby Doo and an Easter Island statue, sat behind the piano and, with an ironic arch of the eyebrow, hammered away So There, the title track of his new album. The intricate and precise sound of his new classical chums was a perfect compliment to Folds’s lyrics which play out like mini black comedies – starting off funny, becoming sad and ending up funny again. Imagine Victoria Wood spending time on the US college circuit and you’ll get the idea.

But Folds has always been eclectic and while the lyrics consistently combine poignancy and dry wit, here the music shot off down several interesting avenues. Effington was epic, like the soundtrack to a train journey through the mid West, while Steven’s Last Night in Town, an old number given a weight of sadness by the fact that the real-life subject of the song had recently passed away, was a bouncy but perfectly controlled jazz number featuring terrific, unshowy solos from several yMusic members.

The strong support successfully papered over the odd crack. Folds’s voice has never been the most powerful and he still struggles to sustain a note, notably in the slower songs.

Towards the end of the evening, Folds turned to the audience and forced us into some very involved participation. Like an eccentric music teacher, he nodded and grinned and gave us the thumbs up – whether making us shout out the nicknames of yMusic members (“Mooooose”,  “Nad-ja!”) or join in the “bah-bah-bah” encore of his pretty much perfect 1999 hit Army. Audience participation can be a curse, but here it felt genuinely collaborative. Maybe it was the acoustics of the Royal Opera House.

Or, more likely, it was the fact that Folds is a passionate advocate for music in all its forms and in his goofy way brings out the best in everyone he works with.