The marquee in Custom House Square was the venue for one of the most highly anticipated events of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival – Ben Folds. On entering the marquee, the effect is really charming; a ceiling festooned with drapes, liberally sprinkled with white pinpoint lights, creates a twinkly night sky.
Opening for Ben Folds in the CQAF marquee was Canadian artist, Matt Holubowski. Just another guy with a guitar we might have thought at first, but actually he soon proved himself to be a particularly talented guy and guitar. Between songs, Holubowski is an affable sort, but the lyrics betray a darker side, including one about the experience of being mugged at machete point in Nicaragua. But there is a beauty to the songs and to his voice, akin to ethereal vocalists like Jeff Buckley or Anohni (formerly Antony Hegarty) if rather more corporeal.
His opening track of the night, Sweet Surreal was simply beautiful. Another track was he told us, inspired by a trip to the exotic San Marcos and when his query as to whether any of us had ever been, was met with stony silence, he asked where our preferred holiday destination is, to which some joker replied loudly; “Portrush”. He hadn’t a clue why everyone laughed, but we know we’re hilarious. For a guy who normally plays with a five-piece band, coming onstage solo, in front of an crowd who had no idea who he was, was no mean feat. Still I imagine it will have paid off and he’ll have found a new audience here. With the exception of a few noisemakers congregated around the bar to the rear, his beautiful cover of Bob Dylan’s To Ramona held the audience rapt.
A bearded Ben Folds slipped onto the stage without fanfare; it took some sections of the chattering crowd a moment to realise he was there, and then there were audible gasps around the room. He opened with a belter, Phone in a Pool. His performance is so exciting, his stomping feet as important an instrument almost as his piano, and he fills this not insubstantial sized room with sound you might expect from a full band.
I hadn’t realised the extent of Fold’s fanbase here, but the ecstatic reaction to the first notes of Annie Waits revealed that it is a devoted one. Every once in a while at a gig, you get a sense that you are in the room with a performer who is a bona fide genius, and this was one of those times. That piano is both an instrument and a weapon, and he wields it with skill. And he looks good too; tall, rangy, bearded and bespectacled, for those of us with a penchant for the geek chic, he’s the ideal man.
Surprisingly, in an almost thirty-year career, this was Ben Fold’s first time to play in Belfast. His first impression of our city was how difficult it was to buy a bottle of recognisable tequila here; he’d ended up with bottle of “Fucking Senor Amigo or something…”, which he sipped from a paper coffee cup throughout the show. He seemed surprised himself, by the warm welcome he received and admitted to having compiled a setlist for the evening that wouldn’t assume that anyone in the audience knew who he was, ranging right from Ben Folds Five‘s self-titled debut album in ‘95.
An anecdote regarding his teen years hanging out on construction sites with his carpenter dad led us into the bitingly funny Uncle Walter. This relative would regularly corner Folds and regale him with details of how he would run the country if he were in charge. Written in 1994, this tale of a “crazy, wa-hoo redneck” dream of presidency, was more prophetic than he realised at the time since now he says, it’s happened for real! In the style of Chris Smither, Folds could use a mic just for his feet.
Nowadays, Folds is employed as Artistic Advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C., and that expertise was put to practice in an impressive way. When he suggested turning us – the audience – into a choir performing four-part harmony, I thought he’d overestimated us, but I was wrong! The instructions were simple; he modelled the four individual parts for us, told us just to pick one and stick with it, with the added advice, “don’t let your neighbour mess you up and if it doesn’t work, fuck it – I’ll do it!” But work it did; as he stood front of stage conducting us, it almost sounded like we knew what we were doing. Eat your heart out Gareth Malone – he achieved in minutes what it took you and the Military Wives a whole series to perfect.
With the practice run over, we actually joined in “for real” during Bastard, and it sounded great. The acoustics in the marquee are really good, enriched by the soft draped ceiling and the sprung floor, and the sound is brilliantly resonant. As the piano music reverberated through my bones, I was reminded of the lyrics of Peter Mulvey’s spoken word piece The Voice in which he says, “I want to speak and hear the floorboards take it up so that people hear me first with their bodies and only then with their ears.” This is music you feel as well as hear.
Often experimental, Ben Folds released an album, Lonely Avenue, with English novelist Nick Hornby back in 2010. Picture Window from that album relates the story of Hornby checking into hospital with his sick daughter one New Year’s Eve, a tear-jerking song with poignant but piercing lyrics; “You know what hope is, Hope is a bastard, Hope is a liar, a cheat and a tease”. It was too sad for words.
After that, a newer song provided a bit of light relief – even though it was about one of his favourite subjects for songwriting – the break-up. This little number though is about a very specific slice of time; that first night in a new apartment after the break-up of a long-term relationship when you think to yourself, “I can put the furniture anywhere I want”, and it’s entitled So There.
Another interlude for sharing stories took us back to the early days of Ben Folds Five when they had a little success but no money or crew as yet and were still touring around dingy clubs and when people still felt they could just walk into their dressing room if they felt like it. On once such occasion, a huge bloke with jail tattoos came in and said, “I’m not a fan, but my girlfriend is”. He demanded to talk about the subject of their song Brick, (which most fans will know is about teenage abortion), and when Folds wasn’t inclined to explain it to him just then, he said that he already knew, and made a lunge for him. At that point he was wrestled to the ground by Folds’ tour manager and, it transpired, he was carrying a knife. He carried that story around in his pocket for about twenty years and in 2015 it became the song, Not A Fan.
Approaching the end of the evening, a few more favourites made their way into the set; Jesusland from the 2005 album Songs for Silverman, followed by the moving ode from a father to a son, Still Fighting It, during which there was one solitary swaying lighter in the front row. An early feminist protest came in the form of Steven’s Last Night in Town. The band once had a charismatic British sound engineer who was a hit with all the ladies on account of his quirky accent and curly hair, but he quickly lost his allure when he once cracked the he could, “Never love a girl cellulite.” This song was penned to encourage the doofus to leave town and not come back.
A virtuosic drum solo took the audience by surprise next. Known primarily for piano, not everyone will be aware that he is a skilled drummer too, and he actually began playing while the drums were being carried onstage. It was a dazzling display of skill, prompting cheers of “G’wan ye boy ye”, from the very Norn Irish audience.
The very catchy Kate was next, then You Don’t Know Me. Ordinarily this song is a duet, recorded with Regina Spektor; tonight, we stood in for her, and it was remarkable how the audience knew not only her part, but all the backing vocals as well, considering he’s never played in these parts before. He seemed genuinely taken aback and gratified, by the love for his music that was so evident in the room.
Besides a night of fantastic music, there were other perks to attending this gig, including the chance to scan the crowd for stars. Particularly exciting was the fact that Neil Hannon was in attendance; but of course, he would be. During the hilariously parodic Rockin’ the Suburbs, added to the usual list of artists names, Quiet Riot, Jon Bon Jovi and the rest, tonight Folds sang, “I’m Rockin’ the Suburbs, Just like The Divine Comedy did,” and the crowd erupted.
Before finishing, he asked for help once more with a little three-part harmony, which he said he knew we’d knock out of the park. Not the Same was performed up on his feet, one hand playing the keys, the other conducting us in song, raising our voices with every elevation of his hand like some kind of piano god! The swell of voices in chorus was phenomenal – we knew what to do!
The encore, perhaps unsurprisingly, began with One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces, and as more than half of the audience rushed to the front of stage or into the aisles, the joint literally was jumping! It was suddenly exactly like a standing gig, the floor bouncing under our feet. The finale was Army, which sustained the exuberant mood right until he left the stage with a wave.
Unfortunately, he didn’t do the meet-and-greet, signing thing afterwards, but I suspect that after the outstanding reception he experienced here, Ben Folds will return to Belfast. Everyone seemed in high spirits as they filed out into the almost still light night outside. A few lucky patrons got the chance to stop and chat or snap a quick selfie with Neil Hannon who was charming to everyone who approached him, and who when asked about what he thought of the gig, was effusive in his praise.
The CQAF is an extraordinary event, growing year upon year, but I have to say that they outdid themselves with this one. An exciting, energetic night of music. Photography: Christopher Flack