Ben Folds Fab at Sold-out Kentucky Center

I was pretty sure that Ben Folds was going to put on a memorable show at the Kentucky Center with the Louisville Orchestra.

Before last night’s show, I didn’t really know much about Folds. But I knew he had to be more than a mere pop star to get an invite to play with the Orchestra, and that Whitney Hall doesn’t sell out for just any act. And it was special. More on that in a few graphs.

About mid-week was when I first realized that – A, I had an opportunity to take Paula somewhere special on Saturday and that B, I’d better get tickets. Here’s how that went.  I went to this Business First Breakfast thing where the Orchestra’s Teddy Abrams was more than intriguing, and decided I’d figure out a way to go Saturday night.

I went online to the Kentucky Center web site. Sold Out. Tried StubHub. Zero. Called the member line at Kentucky Center. No tickets together in the whole place. Called my ticket guy, Jeff McLennan, who’d never failed before. Gone to Super Bowl, no Ben Folds tickets. Found a few sellers at Craigslist, but was either too late or seller had changed his mind. My friend John advised me to go down there and find a scalper. No thanks.

PHOTO CREDIT: Alton Strupp

Meanwhile, I had promised Paula, starting Thursday, a surprise for our Saturday night. So about 4:30, during a timeout from watching the U of L-UNC game on TV, I told her about my plan, admitting that this probably wasn’t going to work out. Paula, who doesn’t always share the same cultural wish lists as I do, loves the Orchestra, though she didn’t know who Ben Folds was.

One last chance. Todd from Michigan was in town and had bought two extra tickets for someone who couldn’t make it. He left his number on the Craigslist ad. I called. Left a message. He finally called back, about 5:30, and said he’d sell me the tickets (Row K, good seats) for less than face value. He was going to dinner at Bistro 301 and would meet me in the lobby 30 minutes before showtime.

Thanks to Todd, I’m a hero with Paula and we find our seats. We listened to a few Ben Folds songs on Amazon Prime on the 20-minute drive to the show. I told her about the one song I know, Gracie, and that I only knew about Folds from a stage my son Nick went through at Manual High School. He’d also gotten some play on WFPK radio a few years back when I listened to that station, when he fronted a group called the Ben Folds Five. I liked what I knew, but that wasn’t much.

As for the show — I think even an average musician could sound good playing in front of the Louisville Orchestra. The big, big sound is a mesmerizing experience. But Folds is far better than average, a wizard on the piano, his hands a blur above the keys. He played songs that most of the people around us already knew, and songs he seemed to be making up as he went along. And he played Gracie, about midway through.

At one point, he directed different sections of the orchestra to copy melodies he seemed to whip up on piano. Horns, play this. Woodwinds, try this. Strings, another melody. Then he put them all together. Then he transformed the crowd into another band instrument, coaching us to sing our Aaahs and Laaas at his direction. The result was absolutely beautiful music, audience participation at its best.

There’s this thing about Ben and the phrase “Rock This Bitch.” Check the link to find out, and know that it’s a tribute to Folds’ talents at improvisation and playing to the crowd.

Paula compared Folds favorably to Lyle Lovett.  Great talent, skinny, elegantly dressed, weird hair, and a unique understated delivery of humorous lines. Folds was obviously respected by the musicians, who played as if it wasn’t the first time they’d met.

An example — for a two-song encore, Folds said he’s just play something they knew since they hadn’t planned an encore, tongue in cheek, as he said he was reading from a script that announced exactly the songs for the encore.

You had to be there.