Ben Folds with Tall Heights – What Matters Most Tour
The Beacon Theatre – NYC – 6/22/23
Review & Photos – Rebecca Wolf
I first stumbled upon Ben Folds via his music with Ben Folds Five, many years after his time as frontman and pianist for the group had ended. From my initial encounter with Ben Folds I loved his tone and the melancholy sound of his vocals, and I wondered, “How come I never heard this music when it was released? Why did I never hear the name Ben Folds before?” I assumed my lack of knowledge was a direct result of my limited exposure to music beyond my beloved 70s and 80s oldies. However, a decade since this discovery, when I mention I’m attending a Ben Folds concert and I’m asked, “Who’s Ben Folds? What does he sing?” I’m suddenly baffled. As I incredulously respond, “You’ve never heard of Ben Folds?” I momentarily forget that not too long ago that would’ve been me. So, it appears it’s wasn’t (and still isn’t)only me me who isn’t as familiar as they should be with this multi-talented artist and his phenomenal singing, songwriting and instrumental skills. While Folds might not be as familiar to the masses, that doesn’t mean he lacks a solid, strong, loyal, fanbase. Folds’ fans are many and mighty and are out in force at his live performances.
My first experience at a live Ben Folds concert I was amazed at the devotion displayed by the audience as they sat enraptured, singing along to both the joyful and melancholy numbers. I was surprised as well by Folds’ passionate energy, extraordinary piano skills and comedic interactions with the crowd. Leaving the theater after such a positive experience, I immediately set my sights on attending a future Ben Folds performance. An opportunity arose on June 22nd at The Beacon Theatre in NYC, as Folds is on tour presenting his fifth studio album What Matters Most, released on June 2nd. Folds’ opening act is Tall Heights, who are featured on the album’s song “Moments.” Tall Heights (who’ve regularly served as Folds’ backing) is an electro-folk duo including singer/guitarist Tim Harrington and singer/cellist Paul Wright, with percussionist/singer Paul Dumas joining on tour. I recently discovered Tall Heights when they opened for the band Larkin Poe and was instantly blown away by their instrumental skills and harmonic vocals. So, I was thrilled to learn they were opening for Ben Folds at The Beacon (completely unaware they’re Folds’ band.)
On June 22nd the potential threat of thunderstorms lingered throughout the day. However, New Yorkers, especially diehard fans, are not easily swayed from reaching their destination, rain or shine. While many in the audience were not familiar with Tall Heights, from the moment the warm, rich sounds of Harrington’s guitar and Wright’s cello mixed with their gorgeous harmonies on opening number “Back to Autumn,” from their 2015 EP Holding On, Holding Out, the attention of the crowd was peaked. Outside an orchestral setting, it’s not often one gets to see a passionate cello performance. However, it was fascinating to watch Wright, the expressions on his face, and the swift movements of his bow, as his amplified cello produced dynamic, sweeping sounds. As Harrington empathically played his amplified acoustic guitar, facing Wright as he performed, there was a deep sense that these two musicians are highly connected through the music they create and perform as a duo.
The pair’s 40-minute set included the powerful, haunting “Spirit Cold” and the mesmerizing “Horse to Water,” both from 2016’s Neptune, the emphatic, robust “Only,” from the 2015 EP and the deep, soulful “Murmuring State,” from 2013’s Man of Stone. During the performance Dumas joined on drums during various numbers, adding an additional layer of rhythm, texture and depth. The set ended with an incredible unplugged version of the 2020 single “To Be Young (DuOver),” leaving the audience in wondrous silence as the duo played their instruments and sang their exquisite, melodic harmonies, with no mics. As the song ended the silence in the crowd exploded into much-deserved, rapturous applause, and audience members rose to their feet, cheering this incredible musical duo.
The crowd was fully engaged and enthused as they awaited the arrival of Ben Folds. From the moment Folds stepped onstage with his band, including the Tall Heights members, the adoration of more than 2000 fans at The Beacon Theatre was evident. Someone observing Folds for the first time might assume his outward appearance (neatly trimmed hair, eye glasses and plaid blazer) would be paired with a serious, conservative and restrained demeanor. However, that would be those who haven’t witnessed Folds’ wit, charm and personality and his ability to entertain and connect to the audience through his music and his musings.
Folds opened the evening with the upbeat, bouncy “Family of Me” from the motion picture Over the Hedge, followed by the bright and cheery “Winslow Gardens” and the light and airy “Clouds with Ellipses,” both from the new album What Matters Most. While it’s been over 20 years since Folds embarked on his solo career, his voice continues to have the same distinct, clear, crisp tone, his lyrics remain thought-provoking and real, and the music is still new and fresh. “Losing Lisa,” from 2001’s Rockin’ the Suburbs felt spirited and joyous, while “Fragile” from the new LP, which Folds explained is about those who’ve been abused and their abusers, was melancholy and touching.
As Folds engaged with the audience he expressed both comedic and poignant thoughts. “I’m so glad to be here tonight!” Folds stated with heartfelt energy. “There was a time when my career was going down the shitter…. except here in NY! I love NY!” he exclaimed to raucous cheers from the crowd. “We love you Ben,” came supportive shouts from the back of the house. Folds also shared the origin of “Kristine from the 7th Grade,” a fictitious, heart-wrenching tale of a childhood friend who in recent years evolved into a conspiracy theorist, a commentary on how our world and so many people in it have changed.
“Still Fighting It” from Rockin’ in the Suburbs, an obvious fan favorite, had everyone singing from the first wistful notes to the empowered refrain. Additional songs in the set included the beautiful, emotionally-charged “Landed” from 2005’s Songs for Silverman, as well asthe title track from the new album. “I’d been thinking about what matters most over the last few years,” shared Folds. “I was in my storage locker going through my stuff, trying to get rid of things and feeling sorry for myself; all these little things I thought mattered. I was giving myself time to look at each item, remember it and say a goodbye to it…like a power strip,” he chuckled, receiving a burst of laughter from the crowd. “While I was there I got a text that one of my close friends had died. That significantly changed the direction of the song,” subsequently altering the entire album.
If Folds’ musical entertainment wasn’t already enough for this adoring crowd, the enthusiasm overflowed as Folds announced he had a surprise, inviting Regina Spektor onstage. As the audience went wild, Folds and Spektor sang their 2008 hit “You Don’t Know Me” (feat. Regina Spektor), ending with a standing ovation. With the fans already cruising on high it was the perfect time to generate some musical participation. Before beginning Rockin’ the Suburb’s “Not the Same,” Folds created an audience choir, teaching low, middle and high harmonic parts to sections of the crowd. With Folds as the teacher and conductor, each section “practiced” their part until three-part harmonies filled the auditorium. And, as Folds performed “Not the Same,” the audience joined in with their impressive harmony parts; a thrill for all.
Folds returned to the stage alone for the encore, performing the fun, energetic, “Annie Waits,” as the audience sang along and joined with synchronized claps. As the band members returned Folds played the wistful “Still,” from 2006’s Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP, before ending with the night with “Zak and Sara,” with the crowd going crazy the moment Folds’ fingers began racing across the piano keys. While the masses may still not be well-versed in Folds’ phenomenal skills as a pianist, songwriter and singer, he maintains a large, loyal, much-deserved fanbase. It’s Folds’ personality, ability to entertain and desire to connect with the audience that elevates his musical talents to the next level and will undoubtedly continue to pack theaters at performance.