After checking in at the hotel and a quick shower to freshen up, we head out in search of the HMV Institute. In the semi-rural small towns we call home, the high streets are devoid of people and cars well before 6pm, even on a Saturday. Here, the crisp chill of a February evening combined with the still-fervent shopping activity gives New Street a festive feel – it’s almost as though Christmas shopping season is still on. Warm breath tinged with the glow of shop windows; trees carrying strings of lights that you expect to see only in December.
And best of all? We’re going to see Ben Folds.
Our eyes struggle to adjust to the ‘muted’ lighting of the auditorium and we stumble around a few flights of stairs to secure some good seats.
Scratch that; some great seats. Just under two hours to the start of the show and there we are, staring right at the keyboard of the piano. Damn, the anticipation!
The evening’s support act takes to that stage. We’ve never heard of Kate Miller-Heidke, and before she even reaches the end of the first line of the set we wonder how we haven’t. Later on, Ben Folds describes her as “over-qualified” to be a support act, and it’s hard to disagree with the sentiment. Her singing is outstanding, skipping instantly between vocal styles with the sort of ease that demonstrates just why she has won awards. Keir Nuttall’s guitar gets appropriate attention too, especially while indulging in his own comedic moments and frantic solos.
(The songs are all fresh and exciting, and the following videos, while not from the Birmingham gig specifically, are great examples of their work):
(A brief warning about language for this one):
During the arguable highlight of the set – a cover of Eminem’s The Real Slim Shady – a meandering spotlight casts its gaze over the enraptured audience and highlights unblinking concentration and impressed smiles throughout the crowd below us. It seems that more than a few people have perhaps fallen a little bit in love with Kate Miller-Heidke…
The couple sitting next to us prove to be entertaining company during the seemingly interminable waits for music. We compare gigs, share stories of Ben Folds fandom, and marvel at the prices of drinks from the bar. They are good people, a statement evidenced by their good-natured reaction when I start to sing a muttered version of Zuton Fever, only moments after they recount a story of not enjoying a gig by … The Zutons. (‘FAIL!’ on my part, as the saying goes).
Main event time! Ben Folds takes to the stage with a full band; a rarity compared to the usual set up of a bassist and drummer, but the additional instruments add depth to the songs (particularly the Lonely Avenue extracts). Acoustically speaking, seats so far to the front and left are perhaps not ideal, but when the view is this good it hardly detracts. However often we try and sing along to a new song, his skill at the piano eventually mesmerises us and renders us silent, agog at the speed of his fingers.
Toward the end of the set, Kate Miller-Heidke returns to the stage and contributes to From Above and You Don’t Know Me. Seeing the female vocals performed on stage, even when they are relatively minor parts, brings the songs to life in a way the CD versions struggle to match, and You Don’t Know Me is a personal highlight.
A brief but entertaining encore (again, with some language):