REVIEW: Paul Rhodes’s verdict on Ben Folds, What Matters Most Tour, Grand Opera House, York, November 16

Upright pianist: Ben Folds and his band delivering What Matters Most at Grand Opera House, York. Picture: Carl Letman

BEN Folds occupies his own unique space in the music firmament with his uncannily tuneful, wry and sarcastic tunes. Aged 56, he’s late in making his York debut but it was worth the wait. The future Folds could hardly wait for 30 years ago is now here, and he is wearing it well.

This has been a tour of highs and lows. The Grand Opera House sits on the same itinerary as the Royal Albert Hall but we very nearly didn’t see him. Tendinitis in his left arm has forced Folds to cancel his solo shows. This injury didn’t get a mention – and the energy levels on stage were high but may partly explain why the roof stayed on at the end.

When North Carolina pianist and songwriter Folds burst into our lives in the mid-1990s with the Ben Folds Five (ironically, a trio), his approach was a refreshing potpourri of punk, Jerry Lee Lewis piano and a White Stripes attitude.

Ben Folds: Defied tendonitis in his left arm to play Grand Opera House, York

Now in his mid-50s, Folds’ music has evolved. The wit in his lyrics is still very much there, but that sophistication is more clearly reflected musically too; with his tunes full of interesting twists and arrangements, like an alt-pop Bacharach or the realisation of where Elliot Smith may have been heading (particularly striking on Annie Waits).

Fortunately, Folds had an absolutely crack band for this tour; visually and musically at the top of their game. Folds sat stage left, while to the right bass player Mandy Clarke was a black-and-white pulsing thrum of energy, contrasting with multi-instrumentalist Ross Garron with his salt-and-pepper beard.

Behind Folds were the Tall Trees (Tim Harrington and Paul Wright), who provided many of the musical highlights in the 18-song setlist. On guitar and cello, they also sang superlative harmonies.

Showcasing tunes from June’s What Matters Most, Folds’ fifth studio album, this was not some Nineties’ nostalgia greatest hits show. The new album was chipped out of Covid, when Folds taught songwriting online (at least two of his students were in the audience).

“Ben Folds had an absolutely crack band for this tour, visually and musically at the top of their game,” says reviewer Paul Rhodes. Picture: Carl Letman

Where many artists resist explaining their songs, Folds was the opposite, providing a fascinating glimpse into how his leftfield creative juices work. Kristina From The Seventh Grade was a standout although Exhausting Lover pitched for midlife Beck and fell short.

What Matters Most sounded a little workmanlike, not achieving the heft the title demands. The introduction to the song was exemplary, taking us from laughs to pathos with perfect timing.

Well-chosen forays into his back catalogue also gave the audience a chance to shine, on the money as Regina Spektor on You Don’t Know Me, as well as three-part harmonies on Zak And Sarah that made Folds smile (I think kindly, rather than in sympathy).

As we filed happily out afterwards, the Tall Trees continued to play in the street with the flooded River Ouse to one side – an original touch to put the cap on a fine evening’s entertainment.

Review by Paul Rhodes

The artwork for Ben Folds’ June 2023 album What Matters Most, showcased at Grand Opera House, York