I didn’t expect to, nor did I hear it. Bitches Ain’t Shit, the perennially youthful-looking American singer-songwriter-composer-producer Ben Folds’ fearless dig at the more misogynistic side of hip-hop culture wasn’t really suitable material, I suppose, for an evening with the Sydney Symphony. But there was plenty of other grist to the mill, in terms of orchestral power pop.
Unfortunately, sound was an inhibiting factor: it took the best part of the first half of the concert, at least, to sort it out: there seemed to be some troubling, low-pitched feedback; despite his pounding of the piano (he wears Bandaids to protect his fingertips), it could often barely be heard and much detail was lost when it could be; his, by turns, deeply empathic, then wry, lyrics were, mostly, indiscernible. Surtitles, anyone?
Nonetheless, Folds gave us a very engaging couple of hours (he’s a master at forging fast intimacy with a mass audience). During that time, among other unusual things, he stood up to do an extended, idiosyncratic testimonial, citing orchestras as about the only successful working model of intensive human cooperation on the planet. He played the third movement of a concerto he’s written (or, perhaps, is still writing), a quite ingenious, playful pastiche of classical motifs, but one which stands, at the self-same time, on its own two feet, as a worthy contribution to the form in the European sense and, particularly, as an homage to the American tradition, as led by the likes of Gershwin and Bernstein.
This was unexpected and a highlight, which compensated for some of the less successful arrangements of certain of his songs: often, the orchestra sounded thin and light, sacrificing its power to, frankly, inept augmentations, that gave too much emphasis to high strings, while eschewing the backbone basses, cellos, woodwinds, brass and sturdier percussion.
Another innovative, edgy part of the performance was based in a tradition that grew up around Folds unbidden and which he has ever since capitalised upon. When recording a live CD some time ago, a member of the audience decided to immortalise himself by interjecting loudly between songs. “Rock that bitch!” he exclaimed. Somehow, this put the stunned Folds in an improvisational state of mind and so he contrived a song, on the spot, which became known as Rock That Bitch.
This has resulted in copycat incidents, so he has determined to write a new song every time the motto is thrown out there. It’s extraordinarily brave and the courage of the orchestra, in this case, was called upon, too, as Folds wrote parts for each section and then called upon conductor, Guy Noble, to pull the whole thing together, while he rapped and extemporised on Steinway.
He also decided to conduct himself, using the collective vocal talents of the audience as his instrument; first, teaching us a three part harmonic figure, then exploiting us as if we were the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We lapped it up. It was the stuff of butterflies and goosebumps.
In person and in song, Folds has a knack for narrative, perhaps best exemplified in Fred Jones, Part 2, from his turn-of-the-millennium album Rockin’ The Suburbs. It’s the true story of a conscientious newspaper editor, resembling Mark Twain in appearance and known firsthand to Folds, made unceremoniously redundant after decades of journalistic excellence.
The first line says it all: Fred sits alone, at his desk, in the dark; there’s an awkward young shadow, who waits in the hall. It’s implicit sadness is enhanced by the simples of piano melodies, in dreamy, hallucinatory waltz-time. It’s one of those tunes that reminds us that the indulgence and intervention of a full orchestra is just that, since it could stand eloquently without anything beyond piano and voice. Mind you, the-cello-and-bass orchestration is tasty and the distant-sounding bass drum adds character. And I think there was a little plucked harp in there. It was probably one of the better collaborations between solo artist and Noble’s big band. Of course, the name has been changed to protect the victimised, who stands, generically, as a surrogate for anyone and everyone who’s ever been dudded by a merciless employer. Therein, the universal poignancy of the song.
To provide context, Folds gave us the elusive part one prequel to Fred, gleaned from an absurd, almost unreadable run-on sentence he singled out from a newspaper article (presumably, not written or edited by Mr. Jones). This is where the name Fred Jones derived. Fred Jones was worn out from caring for his often screaming and crying wife burning the day but he couldn’t sleep at night for fear that she in a stupor from the drugs that didn’t even ease the pain would set the house ablaze with a cigarette.
It reads like a one-minute and 38 second novel. Extraordinary. And a pointer to Folds’ watchful, perceptive role as dedicated observer of the unwittingly weird world in which he finds himself.
There were, of course, many other songs, but, in terms of collaborative value, these were among the most engaging moments. During them, time stood almost still and Folds held us in the palm of his hand, manipulating us like so many willing marionettes. For all its technical faults (including some out-of-synch timing from the sometimes overtaxed and out-of-its-element orchestra), this shaped-up as a memorable event, with all concerned dedicating plenty of heart and soul.