On Friday, May 13, 2016, I ventured to the Riviera Theatre on Chicago’s north side to see Ben Folds play with yMusic. This was the fourth time I have seen them together and each time, they play tighter as a “band.”
yMusic, a contemporary chamber music ensemble out of New York City, may seem an unlikely rock band, but Ben Folds fans are used to unlikely combinations. I’ve seen Ben Folds perform live solo, with Ben Folds Five, with his own touring band, and with three different orchestras. However, yMusic is a special pairing.
Ben Folds and yMusic set out to make a pop album and used yMusic’s instrumentation augmented with Ben Folds on piano/vocals and Ben’s long-time drummer, Sam Smith, to achieve a sound previously unheard in pop music. yMusic brings violin, viola, and cello on the strings side and three wind players, consisting of flute/piccolo, trumpet/flugelhorn/F horn, and clarinet/bass clarinet. Two yMusic members also add male and female backup vocals to the mix. Long-time Ben Folds fans have seen Sam Smith bring his considerable percussion talents to many shows (Ben tours with Sam in his non-Ben-Folds-Five and orchestra performances). Music aficionados may note an absence of bass in this band. While this function is provided by the left hand of the piano and occasionally by cello and bass clarinet, the fact that no electric bass is present makes this pop performance even more interesting.
For this particular show, I had VIP tickets—along with about 100 other fans—allowing entrance in advance to hear a soundcheck performance of about 5 songs, followed by a meet-and-greet. The meeting and greeting part consisted of a handshake and a photo, but it was still a good experience to say a few words to Ben. Before the VIP event, I was fairly lucky to meet Ben on Lawrence Avenue and say greet him before the show. That was somewhat surreal.
The soundcheck performance was the highlight of the evening for me. On the way in, the organizers of the event reminded us that this was, indeed, a soundcheck—and that they needed a somewhat quiet room to get the sound levels set. The VIP crowd took the request seriously and not only did we get a front-rail standing opportunity (The Riv has no seats on the main floor), we got to hear the group live without much background noise.
Unfortunately, the courteous crowd did not extend beyond the VIP experience. Throughout the entire show, the audience was extremely loud during the performances of opening act Dotan and the entire Ben Folds/yMusic show. For the concert, I opted to sit front-row center on the balcony (The Riv does have seats in the balcony). While the crowd noise was significant up there, it was apparently much worse below, according to my friends who stayed standing on the main floor. I’ll forgive the crowd a bit since a primarily-stand-up venue may not be the best option for a chamber music gig. However, yMusic held their own and attempted to play over the rowdiness. But a mic’ed violin can only do so much against 2,500 loud, drinking fans in a relatively small room.
The setlist (below) was very similar to the previous three shows I’d seen from this tour. On their own, yMusic opened with Beautiful Mechanical without Ben and Sam, and later performed Music in Circles. Unlike the first two shows, Ben performed every other song (except the first encore) with yMusic. The orchestrations and performances have only gotten better as they have played together over time.
My hope is that this group remains together for a while, and I’d love to hear a few more songs from them.
Beautiful Mechanical (yMusic only)
Capable of Anything
Not a Fan
Phone in a Pool
Music in Circles (yMusic only)
Rock This B*tch
I’m Not the Man
Song for the Dumped
Steven’s Last Night in Town
Landed (Ben Folds only)
You Don’t Know Me