The power pop pianist and ex-“Schussy Cat” was joined by the Grand Rapids Symphony and conductor Jacomo Bairos for “Rock this Bitch” and more, regaling 2,500 strong on a gorgeous night at the ski area.
The opening line of Ben Folds’ amusing “Effington,” which launched the pianist’s set with the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday night suggests, “If there’s a God, he is laughing at us and our football team.”
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He also couldn’t have created a more perfect evening or a more perfect concert to wrap up the 10th annual Picnic Pops summer series at Cannonsburg Ski Area in Belmont.
An entertaining singer like Folds accompanied by a four-piece band is cool, but an outdoor spectacle featuring the accompaniment of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra led by guest conductor Jacomo Bairos delivered on a gorgeous summer evening is significantly groovier.
It proved to be an insanely memorable night for the 2,500 or so gathered amid the ski hills, not only for those who knew all of the lyrics to Folds’ classics — from “So There” to “One Angry Dwarf” — but for those learning those quirky lines for the first time, delivered in a venue well-suited for an all-ages affair, surrounded by ski lodges, trees and a wildflower-festooned landscape.
Indeed, while on the subject of skiing, Folds, a North Carolina native, revealed early on that he has a Michigan connection: As a 20-year-old musician, he used to perform at northern Michigan’s Schuss Mountain as part of the band “The Schussy Cats.”
COMPOSING AND ‘ROCKING THIS BITCH’ ON THE FLY
Since then, of course, the pianist has fashioned a robust career, from fronting alt-rock’s Ben Folds Five to serving as a judge on NBC’s “The Sing-Off” to performing with orchestras across the country. He last played with the Grand Rapids Symphony in 2014.
And at fan request, the ever-witty Folds, 51, did go off-script in the second set on Friday, unleashing the improvisational, create-a-new-song-on-the-fly “Rock This Bitch” that’s become a Folds staple at live shows.
Although the process of composing on the spot seems simple at first blush, the results were nothing short of spectacular, with Folds giving instructions to the various sections to assemble the tune — declaring “This is hip,” after introducing a jazz oboe solo, and urging a percussionist to “freak out” on the bongo drums for another solo. Not surprisingly, it all received a well-deserved ovation.
Indeed, Folds’ remarkable ability to seamlessly meld pop and classical music had devotees of both genres clapping, hooting, yelling and cheering throughout the evening, which started early with a set by Grand Rapids’ Mid-Life Crisis followed by the Bairos-led symphony performing Gershwin’s “American in Paris.”
AN ENCORE WORTH SAVORING
But the encore that closed the evening — a night that was full of the usual Folds quips and jokes — may have qualified as a moment “too beautiful to handle.”
The two-song encore, which featured one of Folds’ most beloved songs, “The Luckiest,” had Folds tickling the keys amid lights that had turned a deep magenta and lovebirds in the audience swaying together to the ice-meltingly warm tones.
In the end, Folds — in his own inimitable way — may have given the Grand Rapids Symphony the ultimate compliment, praising the orchestra as one of the best.
“With all my travels across the great country,” he said, “there’s cities with great orchestras and then there’s cities that are crap.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Ben Folds w/ Grand Rapids Symphony, Mid-Life Crisis at Cannonsburg
Photos by Anna Sink