Although I consider myself to be a true Nashvillian at this point, originally singing My Old Kentucky Home, I’m new to Lockeland Springsteen; long time reader, first time writer. My day-to-day life consists of running Nashville’s only all-local bookstore, East Side Story, hosting East Side Storytellin’ the first and third Tuesday of each month at Mad Donna’s, and being married to a beautiful artist who puts up with me, two crazy dogs, and our princess cat. In our East Nashville home, we have my great-grandmother’s violin, a guitar, a tambourine, my wife’s old set of mallets from her brief stint in a band, a ukulele, and an assortment of random instruments left behind from the numerous house concerts we have hosted. We also have a bright, bubbly, baby-blue upright piano which we found on Craigslist for a mere $50. The piano, which has become a conversation piece in our dining room, looks like a piece of furniture straight out of The Simpsons, but sounds priceless whenever anyone who can actually play it visits. That’s right: I, nor my wife, can barely play a note on any of the instruments mentioned above. To date, I’ve had a handful of violin lessons, and my wife and I both stopped attempting to learn the piano around same time as the premiere of In Living Color.
Being a child of the 80s and early 90s, I grew up watching several classic sitcoms but my parallels to Kevin Arnold from The Wonder Years was by far the most memorable. When I was trying out for my first baseball team, Kevin tried out for baseball. When I was cursed with my first zit, Kevin was too…and in front of millions of viewer.
You can imagine how lost and upset I felt when The Wonder Years left me about the time my teenage years began. Without Kevin to follow, I considered myself The Luckiest kid to stumble upon the music of Ben Folds. It is my opinion, but I am sure many from my generation would agree, that Folds is one of the most masterful songwriters of our age- combining Twain-like humor, insight, and honesty about the time and world around us better than most contemporary novelists. The combinations of his melodies, tone of voice and philosophies, and the way he writes simple, in-depth stories has helped me appreciate the values of what songs can be at the same time teaching me how to write modern, poignant short stories of my own. So when, on a recent random Thursday afternoon, I received an email from Lockeland Springsteen’s Marissa asking me if I was into Ben Folds, I responded “Um, yeah, you could say that I’m totally into Ben Folds.”
Fast forward to the night of the show, we moseyed our way up to the top floor to catch a bit of pre-concert talk from the Nashville Symphony’s Musical Director, Giancarlo Guerrero. Guerrero was already primed with excitement and sharing with ticket holders the extraordinary back stories behind the plots and creators of the pieces they would be performing. Like any great composer, he constantly talks with his hands and his heart.
Soon it was time for the show to begin and for Folds to take the stage…or so we thought. After all, this evening’s performance was the premiere of Ben Folds’ Piano Concerto. By intermission we realized that Folds, waiting in the shadows, was scheduled as the grand finale of the evening. True to form for every live orchestral performance of classical music I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending, symphonies inevitably take you on a roller coaster of feelings that force you to face the entire gambit of human emotions from the beginning to the end of each performance. Waiting for Folds was our first emotion, even before the music began.
Lucky for us, the Nashville Symphony is one of the best bands in the world. Folds would later say that it “is THE best band in the world.” The love of Tristan and Isolde into The Miraculous Mandarin was reminiscent of my love of riding in the backseat of my Grandfather’s car as he drove us over the rolling hills of Kentucky for weekend studio tours of some of the state’s best outsider art. He would never say much, simply letting the sound of classical music on the radio say everything as it made its way through the car and out of the open windows.
After a brief intermission, we came back for one more round of Folds-less music before the anticipated fireworks. Guerrero and his gang kept anticipating feet tapping with familiar tunes such as the William Tell Overture. Holding my attention, I have to admit that Guerrero didn’t bring the house down with his feverish dance moves during William Tell, but his stage floor sure did cave in when it concluded. Within minutes of lowering, it rose back up again with a beautiful piano in tow. The crowd erupted into applause. Ben Folds entered stage right.
Folds, with chin up and hands in his pockets, was grinning big time from ear to ear. He walked straight to his piano bench and was overtly in awe of the crowd and band around him. The applause was magnificent. Folds bent towards the piano, almost in an athletic position getting ready for a sprint, hands in the correct position, and waited for the baton to drop. The baton dropped, and we were off to the races. The music was out of the gates like the Kentucky Derby.
To preface the music, I think it’s important to note that this entire piano concerto has been a year in the making between Folds and the Nashville Symphony. I could only imagine how excited Folds was to sit down and finally play his work live. Forget about a kid in a candy store, he was more like a kid who owned the candy store. Folds was hopping up and down from his piano stool as he followed Guerrero’s movements, absorbing the “back-up band” as they made melodic magic all around him. He was enjoying every second and owning it.
More than words, it was fascinating to see someone so talented and accomplished live out a new dream that he helped create with the help of other impeccable professionals. For me, at various times, the concerto showed abstract resemblances to portions of some of my favorite Ben Folds songs. I heard glimpses of “Landed,” “Army,”“Jesusland,” and “Philosophy” on the keys. The rest of the time I just went for the ride, wherever Folds was driving. It didn’t matter to me that I didn’t have any words for which to sing along or that the concerto ended after about 25 minutes. The most important thing to me was that I was there, that it was happening, and I wasn’t the only one who appreciated it happening in Nashville.
Across the street, Billy Joel was playing at Bridgestone Arena. Ill prepared for an encore, Fold returned to the stage to offer up a brilliant tribute to his friend. His fingers hit the keys, and a familiar tune sang out. The sold out crowd did not hesitate to offer their vocals, and soon the room was filled with the sound of “Piano Man.” Serendipitously, the only lull in the singing came right before the moment when the crowd forgot the words and then returned louder than before with “I’m not really sure how it goes…” It was perfect.
Folds took the time to thank the crowd for taking time to come out to listen to his concerto, and everyone could tell that he was nothing but sincere with his comments about how lucky we all are to live in a city like Nashville with the greatest band in the world and the creative environment to make an event like this even possible. It appears that we are all “The Luckiest.”
But the night didn’t end there! We were ushered to the Green Room to meet Folds in person! We weren’t alone though. We took our place near the back of a line that somewhat resembled the Santa Clause line in the movie A Christmas Story. As we slowly moved our way to the front, I scrolled through my mental notes in an attempt to be clever, witty, and give a positive first impression in the mere seconds we might have together with Ben. Above all, I was really just hoping that I wouldn’t go blank after meeting my storytelling hero and only have the wherewithal to mutter the word “football” as Ralphie did.
And like that, it was our turn. I looked up, looked back, reached out my hand to introduce my wife first, and it was too late. Folds had already gone for my hand first. Juggling words out of my mouth, my wife and I actually said the exact two sentences together at the same time. Folds was impressed with the synchronicity of our speech. I managed to bypass football talk and asked him something about the fact that in a concert without words if he had any words to describe his excitement about this entire concerto creative process. Not to quote anyone after the fact in the state of mind that I was in, but he got big-eyed and answered something to the effect that his 17-year-old self would never believe all of this. He was ego-free and completely focused on our conversation, despite the fact that his 3rd performance of this very show was the following evening. It was truly an honor and pleasure to meet a guy that was as nice to us on and off the stage.
I personally know about 2% of Ben Folds’ life, including that he sings amazing songs with the help of his piano and that he calls Nashville home for the time being. That said, I’m already looking forward to his next show. He is playing the concerto with the Nashville Ballet this summer, and I’m sure I’ll dance my way over there too. I’m curious to see if he’ll continue to create such extraordinary musical concepts in the future; I’m sure I’ll be blown away either way. Whether you are a pop, classical, rock, or dance music fan, you should check out Ben Folds’ Piano Concerto and all of his musical styling’s in general when you can. It’s not like he’s trying to reinvent the wheel. But, he is reinventing the way we all appreciate the piano. And for that, I’m very thankful.
I didn’t return home directly to the violin or the piano, because we had house guests. However, I did sit down on the piano bench and think about playing. In the end, isn’t that was Ben Folds was trying to do … get people back into the seats for Nashville Symphony’s sake? Well done, Sir Ben. Well done.
Photos ::: Greg Wilson of ELS Premium Audio and Acura