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Tuesday, 20 February 2018

GIG REVIEW: Ben Folds - Melbourne Zoo, February 17, 2018

Ben Folds
Melbourne Zoo
February 17, 2018

The longer the career, the harder it is to compile a setlist. More albums, more songs, more choices.

Musicians deal with this in a variety of ways. Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam regularly play mammoth sets in order to cram in as much as possible, occasionally even dropping whole albums into the playlist. On Weezer's 2013 Australian tour, they ran their setlists in reverse chronological order, climaxing with The Blue Album in full (except for that night when they played an entirely different setlist complete with Pinkerton in its entirety). And some artists endeavour to give you everything, like Paul Kelly's A-Z concerts, or that time The Living End played every single one of their records in full over consecutive nights.

(And then there are less crowd-pleasing acts such as The Smashing Pumpkins, who played new-album-heavy sets on their 1998 and 2012 Australian tours, giving fans only a handful of hits on the side. Here's hoping they make amends on their upcoming "reunion" tour.)

And then there's Ben Folds, who hit upon an innovative way to craft his setlist for his previous US and current Australian tours - paper planes.

It works like this - Folds plays a 10-song set of his choosing, then takes a 15-minute break. At the end of the interlude, there's a countdown, and fans are encouraged to through their requests on stage via paper aeroplane, which goes down something like this:

Folds then wanders around the stage, picks up a plane at random, and plays the song written on that plane (unless it's something he's already played or it's someone else's song).

The first set ends up being devoid of his signature songs, with Folds perhaps figuring those will get aeronautically selected by the audience. The biggest hits in the front end are the incredible Landed and his Regina Spektor duet You Don't Know Me (with the crowd standing in for Spektor), and the rest of Part One is peppered with three songs from his most recent album, fan favourite album cuts (such as Zak & Sara and Steven's Last Night In Town) and near-forgotten singles (Bastard, There's Always Someone Cooler Than You).

"Sing you bastards!"
This first set has been tweaked from night to night (the previous night at the Zoo saw him bust out Annie Waits, Still Fighting It, Uncle Walter and Not The Same). But it's the second set where the intrigue really lies. For Saturday night's show at the Zoo, Folds plucked hit after hit from the ankle-deep stage around him. Here are our aeroplanes (good job, Melbourne):

PhilosophyRockin' the SuburbsJackson CanneryThe LuckiestKateUndergroundAll U Can EatBrickOne Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn FacesArmy

You couldn't ask for more, although diehards won't be able to stop themselves sneaking a peak at other setlists on the tour to see what might have been.

Beyond what was played, Folds was a gracious host and a respectful visitor. He offered a quick musical lesson on harmonies, prefaced All U Can Eat by saying it was a compilation of things his dad had said, and raced through the last couple of songs in an effort to not keep the animals awake. Because, after all, this gig was at a freakin' zoo.

This guy was loving it.
You may find yourself yearning for the bass of Robert Sledge and the drums of Darren Jessee (and their harmonies) in places but the big takeaways from the show are the power of the songs in the hands of just Folds, and the prowess of those hands. As a pianist, Folds is virtuosic - a fact that sometimes gets lost amid his skills as a songwriter and vocalist.

In many ways, this gig was a novelty, thanks to its setting and Folds' airborne request procedure. And while Folds has his quirks - including a proclivity for profanity, which was amusing in the family-friendly setting - he is a seriously good songwriter. Indeed he's one of the best of the past thirty years. No matter what it said on those paper planes, it was almost always going to be gold.

Full setlist here.

PS. Dear Melbourne Zoo, get more food trucks next time. A 40-minute wait for food isn't cool.

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