back to civilization with ben folds

my grainy photo of Ben Folds conducting the audience in three-part harmony



It’s been a week of influenza at my house now. At long last we reach the moment to throw open the windows to the cleansing breeze of February.

You get sick. With a little luck, you get better.

By Saturday night, my daughter and I feel well enough to venture into downtown, South Dakota Symphony tickets clutched in our formerly feverish hands. Ben Folds is playing with the SDSO tonight.

She doesn’t know who Ben Folds is, but I do.

And I know she’s going to love this.

As I’ve written about the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra throughout the years, Delta David Gier (SDSO’s music director and conductor) has suggested I write about my experience at concerts. They’ve never had a qualified music journalist provide reviews. That sort of feedback is not on the horizon.

Just write about what it’s like, Gier encourages, time and time again. Tell us what you think.

This, naturally, is easier said than done.

First of all, it’s intimidating. Writing about music means entering a new language. How do you describe something in words when you can’t always grasp how its making you feel? The musicians on stage bring decades of conservatory experience to every concert. What sort of arrogance attempts to critique that or even explain it?

Then there is this: Symphony concerts end late on Saturday evening. For the writing to be fresh and relevant, guess how late you have to stay up in order to deliver a suitably well-crafted piece of writing for readers to click on Sunday morning?

When everyone else is going home, floating from the endorphins of a lovely evening, you settle in with your laptop and try to make sense of it all.

It’s romantic, in a way, to be up all night scribbling while the world sleeps.

And then you wake up with drool on your keyboard and 200 words of nonsensical drivel.

Less romantic.

But a Pops concert, you see, is by its very nature laid back. A Pops concert is the perfect place to jump into the stream of classical music (or classical music journalism). It’s how many concertgoers experience the symphony for the first time. And a Ben Folds Pops concert loans itself particularly well to attempts at anything authentic and unexpected and hopeful.

We’ve Been to the Mountain

A bearded Ben Folds ambles onto the stage and by the second song leans back and confesses he hasn’t sat in front of the piano for three months. He quips about going to the mountain to grow his beard. He forgot a little of that last song he admits, and he admits it without a hint of apology.

The first two songs are, in all fairness, a bit rough. But rough in that particular way we have lost in our society as of late. Everything must be polished and affected. Errors erased, reality minimized.

Ben Folds is the cure for this. After decades of playing, he brings a freshness and vulnerability to the stage as if he’s just starting out, as if he’s just starting to fiddle around with this genre and crack it open.

He allows you to believe you’ve just discovered him.

It’s a sold-out crowd. Judging from self-identified applause before the show, roughly 15 percent of concert-goers are experiencing the symphony for the first time. Beer cans pop and fizz around us. When Folds offers a song sans famed duet partner Regina Spektor (“she doesn’t come to all of these”) he invites the female voices in the crowd to fill in her part.

They do, with verve. The twenty-something gentlemen seated on our right join in as well, perfectly pitched.

The show builds—lyrically, musically, emotionally. Folds removes tape from his fingers to play his more technically demanding piano concerto (“Most of my songs don’t require this much accuracy. It’s all about style.”) and the SDSO season ticket holders seated on our left are particularly satisfied with this performance.

Ben Folds passes the classical muster as well.

Pops concerts are interesting creatures. Guaranteed ticket sales. A little rowdy at times (the ushers are kept busy reminding guests to remove their feet from the backs of the seats in front of them). The lady behind us in the concessions line at intermission asks her friend which instrument is the cello because she can never remember the difference.

So the moment near the end of the program when Ben Folds stands to talk to the audience about what it means for a city to have an orchestra holds particular meaning. He gets it. He gets that many here don’t know what’s seated in front of them.

This isn’t just a bauble of entertainment.

He praises the musicians. He says in no way is he putting down his own music, but you really have to come back to hear them play whatever they’re playing next. An orchestra is civilization, he says, and not everyone likes civilization, but we need it.

He goes on to toss away notions of political partisanship by saying that both parties agree we need this, even though we don’t always agree with how it should be funded. He’s played for the RNC and the DNC. Everyone’s on the same team. (This gets a cheer from about half the crowd. Partisanship might have gained a bigger burst of applause, but Ben Folds has the guts and integrity to challenge his audience to deeper thoughtfulness.)

The show rolls on to its feverish and enthusiastic conclusion, Folds banging on the keys and offering his particular dose of wit and energy. The encore includes a romantic offering for Valentine’s Day and a smoldering jazz-infused number that urges the crowd to their feet, cheering even after the lights go on.

Ben Folds returns to the stage for one more bow.

His newly minted 15-year-old fan stands next to me. She’s still too exhausted from her duet with the flu to shriek and cheer. But she claps pretty loudly just the same.

Back to Civilization 

You get sick. If you are very lucky, you get well again. You are reminded that when you throw open your window once again, February awaits, and with it, love and beauty.

My daughter and I head out of the crowd and into the rain-splattered streets of downtown. A woman sells flowers on the corner, and I considerer buying one for my girl, because I like flowers and I like women who sell flowers, but we pass by, content to carry the melodies of the night.

How many more of these concerts do we have together? She is talking now about how much it rains in Connecticut and how someday she wants to live in a place with plenty of rain.

Like here, I want to say. Like it’s raining now? I smile silently. I know what she means.

The crowd thins, and we reach our car, but we’re not really ready to go home. Are you cold, I ask? Can we keep walking? She’s excited by this, as if I’m taking her somewhere adventurous and exciting. I am, I suppose—the city at night.

We pass dark alleys soaked in rain and vibrant bars soaked in jazz and laughter. We peer into the windows of the State Theater and the display cases of a jewelry shop. I learn that my child has an eye for jewels shaped as teardrops.

I remember this for the future.


  1. Your voice is lovely, but being able to enjoy your writing again is a real treat. Thank you for sharing this experience with us.

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