Graeme Thomson

Melodic elegance and literate sass: Ben Folds, at Usher Hall, reviewed

Plus: songs with depth and heart from Jah Wobble

Ben Folds performing in Sydney, 2021. Photo: Don Arnold / Wire Image

Choose your weapon. Artists are closely defined in the public imagination by their instrument of choice. Though the most untamed and transgressive progenitors of rock’n’roll – Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard – were piano pounders, and despite the later efforts of Elton John, over time the instrument has come to be associated with restraint and politesse; the straight second cousin to rock’s clichéd wild child, the electric guitar.

He strolled on stage like a stranger and left 100 minutes later as an old friend I hadn’t realised I’d missed

American singer-songwriter Ben Folds has been playing with these expectations for the best part of 30 years, first in Ben Folds Five, then as a solo artist. His music pledges allegiance – sometimes, you feel, a little self-consciously – to the ornate piano-pop composers of the 1960s, 70s and 80s: Randy Newman, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Harry Nilsson, Billy Joel; Neil Sedaka and Barry Manilow, even.

Melody bursts out of Folds’s songs in great colourful ribbons. His lyrics evoke the arch, literate sass of Steely Dan – short stories boiled down to a handful of verses about odd people making poor choices – yet they can also wrong-foot with moments of great emotional acuity. Tim Minchin has listened closely, that much is certain. 

It’s easy to lose track of an artist like Folds, who unstarrily just gets on and does his thing. His latest record, What Matters Most, is his first for eight years. In Edinburgh, he strolled on stage like a stranger and left 100 minutes later as an old friend I hadn’t realised I’d missed.

‘It’s nothing to do with the environment – I just hate Constable.’

It helps he’s a good talker. Having the ability to engage with an audience without sounding like a children’s TV presenter or the winner of a beauty contest is a fading art.

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