Fort Worth At first, there was no title -- only quick, guttural notes on the cello.
Disregarding the tuxedo-clad conductor standing, amused, on the podium, Ben Folds continued methodically layering sections of sound on top of another: some strings, a little woodwinds, some hushed vocals, a hint of snare drum.
"Anyone wanna solo on the vibes back there?" asked Folds. "It's in F." (No one took him up on the offer.) Gradually, the once-formless cloud of sound coalesced into something resembling an elegant disco vamp.
As the rapt audience filling Bass Hall watched, Folds, one of pop music's more inventive and frenetic talents, improvised a couple minutes' worth of music out of thin air, with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra ably following his every whim. It was completely thrilling to watch (I'm sure performing it was probably a touch nerve-wracking) and coming near the night's end, one of many singular moments in an evening packed with them.
In his Bass Hall debut Friday night, the bespectacled singer-songwriter was moving, funny, profane, and above all else, in full command of his skill at the piano.
Folds has collaborated with what seems like nearly every orchestra in the country -- he's twice performed with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, first in 2009 and again last year -- and he's refined the set beautifully. When I first saw him with the DSO three years ago, the seams often showed, making Folds' rock songs not quite fully fit with the full roster of players on stage. Not so this time around -- the FWSO, led by associate conductor Andres Franco, meshed seamlessly with Folds from the opening notes, delivering vibrant, nuanced support.
It helps that Folds has pared his now-extensive catalog down to a smart, 90-minute set showcasing a variety of material, stretching all the way back to 1997's Whatever and Ever Amen. Tracks like Effington, Zak and Sara and, particularly, the satiric Jesusland were burnished by the stellar vocal work of a University of North Texas octet, recently singled out by DownBeat magazine as one of the country's best.
Everything clicked: the lush arrangements (some composed by veteran Paul Buckmaster); Folds' voice and piano were muscular (although, at least in the evening's first half, his mic seemed a tad low) and the audience was on the same wavelength throughout. They even listened as Folds, given to rambling back-stories about his compositions, delivered an impassioned plea for attendees to treasure, value and fight for arts organizations like the FWSO, calling them a "pillar of civilization."
Rock-leaning shows are always tricky propositions in concert halls -- the crowd is never quite sure how to conduct itself. Thankfully, decorum was the last thing on this room's mind, particularly at the end of Folds' second, three-song solo encore, which concluded with Rockin' the Suburbs and the standing, cheering audience members gleefully screaming profanity at the beautifully painted ceiling.
Given that so few mainstream musicians actively seek out risk these days, it's refreshing and exhilarating to watch Ben Folds repeatedly throw caution to the wind and try to reach somewhere he hasn't gone before. When he can pull along a full house like the one he encountered at Bass Hall, with nothing but his wits and talent to guide him ... well, that's the kind of evening you just never forget.