BEN FOLDS AND A PIANO | London, Barbican

Well-regarded abstract impressionist Hans Hofmann would have been an odd choice to headline the Barbican main stage. However —bear with me— his call to ‘eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak’ could well have been the note that led to this most recent stripped-down, splendid Ben Folds tour.

Over the past couple of years, Mr Folds has had the opportunity/right/desire to take his music into newly orchestrated places. Album So There brought contemporary classical ensemble yMusic into the mix and his ground-breaking appointment as Artistic Advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra has led to such bonkers moments as this spontaneously composed piece. So what’s the appeal in going all ‘first principles’ when his current creative streak points towards the cacophonous?

Within the space of about 3 songs and 3 equally brilliant stories about why they were written it became very clear why the ingredients had been stripped back. This was vintage Folds. Vintage in the sense that the songs are well-worn and loved by all in the hall and also demonstrating how this particular bottling is developing more sophisticated notes with age. Every aspect that an audience member would want to be explored, worked and allowed to breathe was given the opportunity to do just that. The stories ranged from sitting in diners with his father to dodgy English sound engineers and pseudo-premonitions of the Trump presidency. With full control over the musical elements, Ben seems to have been experimenting with new arrangements on the keys and the words in turn seemed to have new clarity and character in the mix.

‘I like this format’ said a wistful Ben Folds having just ridden out an inexplicable lighting outage with good humour and improvised lyrics. As he picked up the pace towards the end of a generous and unfailingly classy 2-hour set, the audience hummed their own gentle harmonies creating something of a naturally-inspired reverb in the hall. We’ll look forward to the return of this format after whatever maverick piece of collaboration is comes next.

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