Take a piano geek who, at times, plays what can best be described as heavy metal piano, throw in a 90-piece orchestra and you’ve got Ben Folds and WASO – Live in Perth, a new DVD music release on Epic.
WASO stands for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. the DVD is 80 minutes of Folds performing with WASO in March 2005 on the grounds of a botanical garden in Perth, Australia. Folds first gained fame with the Ben Folds Five, a power pop combo, before striking out with some excellent solo albums.
This is the newest chapter is his musical saga. Folds is well known for his live performances, particularly as a solo act. The performance with WASO is an entirely new dimension both in terms of performance and his music. Twelve of the 14 songs are arranged by Perth area musicians. While they do not include anything from the latest solo effort by Folds, Songs for Silverman, they cover the ground from the first, eponymous Ben Folds Five release through six songs from the marvelous Rockin’ the Suburbs released in 2001.
Some songs — largely those that do or would do well with some background orchestration — transition easily. This is particularly so of songs like “Lullabye” (with wonderful colors and jazz-tinged touches added by Graeme Lyell on saxophone) and the beautiful “The Luckiest,” whose original sparseness is replaced by the orchestra, creating a version of the song compelling in its own right. While these songs gain added dimension, a lushness is added to songs you might not otherwise think of in this context, such as “Brick” and “Evaporated.” Similarly, “The Ascent of Stan” moves surprisingly well to the orchestral setting, perhaps because the orchestra adds additional layers and accents to the piano rhythms upon which the song is framed.
At the same time, certain songs simply do not do well here. For example, in its original version “Annie Waits” is driven by piano power chords. Those chords and their power are overwhelmed, if not lost, in the setting of a 90-piece orchestra. The same is true of the DVD’s opening tune, “Zak and Sara.” Folds and his piano simply seem swallowed up by the powerful sound of a full orchestra.
Appearing with an orchestra doesn’t keep Folds from including portions of his traditional performances. For example, he directs the audience in part of the harmonies of “Not The Same,” the only song performed without the orchestra. For those who have not attended one of his concerts, there is also tradition of Folds playing a made-up piece called “Rock This Bitch” after the title is yelled out by the audience. Generally, the game is to see what style Folds will use — reggae, funk, heavy metal, pop — while he makes up the words up on the spot,. Naturally, when the inevitable cries come from the audience at the beginning of the encore, Folds cannot help but “rock this bitch orchestrally,” calling out chords to the full orchestra and asking various performers for brief solos in a particular key.
Sadly, though, the DVD contains nothing more than the concert. There are no extras, even though it would be interesting to know about how and why Folds came to play with WASO, how the arrangers were selected and whether Folds played any role in the arrangements. This is, in essence, a video version of a CD. While it does illuminate an interesting chapter in Folds’s career, it will find its most amenable audience with current fans and is unlikely to entice a significant number of new ones.