Either Ben Folds is amazingly eclectic in his lineup or Paul and I just took note of very different songs in our respective concert experiences with him. In my disjointed and very poorly spelled text message to myself during the show, I managed to jot down “Erase Me,” “Song for the Dumped,” “Jesusland,” “Effington,” and “Phone in a Pool” and absolutely none of the ones that Paul noted. I’m not sure if I was just distracted when other songs were played or if the lineup really changed that much (let’s be real – probably the former). Honestly I couldn’t see anything for the first half of the show anyways because the Riv is the absolute worst (for the love of God guys – get a door for that one stall in the ladies. We may be paying $7 for our PBRs but leave us with at least a little bit of our dignity intact.)
What we do both agree on is the value added by Ben’s currently touring ensemble, New York’s yMusic. The group is amazing. You’ll be mesmerized right off the bat by the violinist and flautist’s hair, and once you’re drawn in by their locks you’ll be blown away by their technical skill. Ben Folds is a charismatic and charming frontman, coming off at times as downright goofy, and while it might not seem like that lightness would pair well with the more serious chamber music that’s being produced by the backing band, they somehow make it work effortlessly, bringing the beauty and resonance of the music to the forefront without making the experience in any way heavy or somber. It’s like champagne – bubbly and fun but also an experience to be savored.
Accompanying Ben Folds on his current tour are New York’s yMusic Ensemble, a six piece featuring strings and horns with whom Folds collaborated on his latest album So There. An impressive group of players, yMusic not only helped to flesh out Folds’ compositions, but also performed a couple of their own to great effect.
With such talented musicians backing him up, you might think that Folds would veer more towards his serious side and toss in a few more ballads and such, just to keep it classy, but Ben Folds kept it real, delivering some amusing improvised lyrics about random topics such as the West Bar at the venue (“where they sell Budweiser”) and the East bar (“where they also sell Budweiser”) as well as a bit about receiving the “Canadian cavity search” at the border. Furthermore, he pulled out a surprise cover in response to a shouted request – his version of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit.” At first he seemed hesitant, like he was going to blow it off, but he rolled with it. “We don’t know that one,” he said, “but I think we can throw something together.” And while the trope of doing an ironically mellow cover of a gangsta rap song is a bit played out at this point, Ben Folds was one of the first to do it, so we can let that one slide.
Overall, it was an enjoyable mix of old favourites (“Army,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Mess”) and newer material such as “Not A Fan” and “Long Way To Go.” Folds ended his set by leading the crowd in a beautiful mass singalong as though they were his own personal chorale, while also jokingly telling the crowd to “Suck it, Toronto!” before dropping the mic. This seems to be typical of a Ben Folds performance, which can run the gamut from serious, heartfelt ballads (a few of which he treated us to on this occasion) to more tongue in cheek material, sometimes seemingly all at once.
Back in the day when the time that a show aired on TV mattered a whole lot more than it does now, the term “Friday night death slot” was coined. Because people would generally rather go out somewhere than stay in and watch television on a Friday night, this time slot created a sink or swim situation, thus dooming a show to a lack of viewers and often ultimately leading to cancellation if it couldn’t hold on to an audience. On a similar note, it would seem that live music may have corresponding times and places wherein, for whatever reasons, a band doesn’t get much of an audience. I happened to observe this a couple of times during CMW, and both acts responded in perhaps the only way they could: by not giving a fuck and playing the best show they can regardless.
First up was Welsh band The People The Poet, who were playing at the rather un-rock ‘n roll hour of 6:00 pm. At a festival like CMW, where the tradition of having day shows has never caught on, this ensured that they’d be playing to a crowd of mostly after work drinkers and/or people on their way to the Blue Jays game. “We’re not from here, which explains why we’re playing to this many people,” offered up singer Leon Stanford by way of introduction. The band took the low pressure environment of such a show and ran with it, playing a loose but enjoyable set and seemingly using it as an excuse to work on their goofy stage banter game, commenting about the kinds of people found on chat roulette and taking a few shots at baseball (“It makes cricket look good.”).
Later that same evening, poppy indie/punk four piece The Spook School faced a similarly tiny and mostly indifferent crowd, but the band, who introduced themselves as “a bunch of queers from Scotland” put on a tight show regardless. Though they played a 1:00 am slot at The 300 Club to a mostly empty room, they still managed to impress me with their catchy numbers on topics such as sexuality and gender identity, with “Binary” and it’s singalong chorus of “01010101” standing out as a particular highlight. “I think I saw this on an episode of Behind The Music. It’s gonna be alright,” quipped drummer Niall McCamley at the start of their set as he surveyed the audience and he later joked about how much he was enjoying it in a way. “This is great. It’s like an intimate rehearsal, but we’ve got lights. And a hostage crowd that would rather be at the bar.”
As KJ Jansen, singer and guitarist for Calgary pop punk band Chixdiggit, took to the stage at The Bovine, he jokingly announced to the crowd, “Welcome to the soundcheck. It’ll last about 25 minutes,” making a crack about his level of professionalism. And though there was a looseness to his performance, Jansen managed to make that work to his advantage.
Right off the bat, there was a very communal vibe about this show, with several superfans up front who seemed to know all of the words to all the songs, some of them probably better than Jansen himself (one of them even sang the bassline to one song). Having put together a list of songs that he knew how to play before the show, Jansen entrusted a couple of fans up front to be in charge of choosing the setlist. This got slightly out of hand quickly enough when other people started shouting out ones he didn’t remember, but Jansen was game enough that he just rolled with it. Towards the end of his set, he began referring to the entire crowd as his band for the night and he led his “band” though singalongs on numbers such as “Chupacabra,” the 30 second long “Quit Your Job” and “(I Feel Like)(Gerry) Cheevers (Stitch Marks On My Heart).”
Jansen started off his set by saying that of all the shows happening during Canadian Music Week, this would probably be the least professional. If that’s the case, then I say professionalism be damned – he put on easily one of the most entertaining shows I saw all week, with both the audience and Jansen himself clearly enjoying every minute of it.