Review: “Rock This Bitch!” Ben Folds with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

14 February 2021

Self-deprecating, sarcastic and slightly crass Ben Folds would not be my first pick to headline an orchestra tour. His navy suit clashed with the blacks of the orchestra. His body moved almost violently with the notes he played, sharply different from their more disciplined movements.

It was perfect.

Over the past decade, Folds has displayed his musical prowess by manipulating his cheeky lyrics and melodies into different mediums. Naturally, this made the prospect of seeing him with one of the ‘world’s best orchestras’ (Folds’ words) so enticing.

Part of the excitement of the experience was the prolonged build up to this performance. “This concert was supposed to happen last year,” chuckled Folds early on, reflecting upon how he got stranded in Sydney halfway through last year’s tour, thanking the Melbourne audience for the hard yards we went through. “We oughta be kissing your assthank you.”

It was tales like this which made the anticipation for the show worth it, with each song introduced with humour and character. As a newbie to Folds’ music, I felt like I was being warmly invited into the community he has built throughout the years. A crowd that clung to every word, laughed at every joke and cheered for every song.

One soliloquy saw Folds fawning over the talent of orchestral musicians, and understandably so. Throughout the whole performance, their gift as an ensemble was displayed through beautiful tone, perfect blending and exciting dynamics.

It was a shout of “rock this bitch” from the crowd where their skill was truly demonstrated. A tradition within the Ben Folds fandom, the utterance of this statement challenges him to improvise a brand new song, so naturally he arranged a whole composition. And incredibly, each performer was able to pick it up within 4 counts. It was quite simply the most impressive moment of live performance I have ever experienced.

Admittedly, the convention centre, described by Folds as the perfect place for a ‘get rich quick seminar,’ was a strange place to be watching these world class musicians, but it was put to good use time and time again. The lighting in particular was used brilliantly, shining on the audience when we sang a three-part harmony or were the butt of Folds’ jokes.

An encore consisted of ‘The Luckiest,’ a ballad challenging the idea that “it’s not cool to write a love song.” Lending itself to a heart wrenching performance, the orchestra was once again put to good use, emphasising the emotion underlying the song. Combined with Folds’ storytelling about the couple that inspired the tune, it was a beautiful moment that left the audience in a standing ovation.

It would have been the perfect finish, but a call from the crowd challenging Folds to a last-minute performance of another song was sadly disappointing. It felt like a rushed epilogue to the strong narrative which structured the concert.

Ben Folds and the MSO brought heart, humour and joy to their performance, making it an unforgettable night for the entire audience.

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