Live music and performance can evoke a range of emotions in an audience, especially when they have been starved of the sense of connection with the local and global entertainment industry in some form of lockdown due to COVID-19.
With just a grand piano and a microphone on stage, the iconic songwriter and storyteller lyricist, Ben Folds charmed the A Day on the Green crowd, with his wit, dry sense of humour and honky-tonk pizzazz at the inaugural Cellar Door Series – Live and Intimate event, held at Bimbadgen Estate on Saturday.
Armed with a catalogue of hits and fan favourites, the American song-writer had the crowd singing along and jigging in their camping chairs, as is the new norm at post-COVID gigs.
“I don’t play at wineries very often, so I don’t have any winery shtick, and it’s not the usual rock gig to play during the day, but I’m sure we’ll work it out,” Folds said as way of welcome to his intimate-sized audience.
Kicking things off with the namesake of his 2015 album So There, Folds thumped or fluttered along the keys, creating a percussive beat by stomping on the frame of the grand piano.
He then took things down in tone and feels with the hauntingly beautiful Annie Waits and the crowd joined in to fill out the percussion section. He lifted the crowd again with the sass and humour of Bastard, explaining how he had tried to emulate the style of 1990s R&B doyenne, Lauryn Hill to pen the song about his step-grandfather, Baxter.
After being stranded in Sydney since the outbreak of COVID at the start of 2020, Folds shared how, living in an apartment, he had to be mindful of his neighbours, so had not been slamming and stomping on his piano as often as he normally would have.
“But I’m assuming you would rather I play something and f**k it up than play it perfect – sorry for swearing. There are kids are out there and shit,” Folds said, pointing out the diversity in age of the crowd.
Without a formal setlist, Folds plucked songs from his back catalogue to create a series of memorial moments of connection with his audience. Playing the thoughtful The Man I Used to Be followed by the honky-tonk Ben Folds Five single Uncle Walter sharing a story about his childhood growing up surrounded by opinionated and narrow-minded relatives in America’s South.
Folds story of his dad taking him to boxing matches, and bathroom mishaps when he was a boy, enthralled, and made the audience giggle, before jumping into the waltz Boxing from his first album with former band Ben Folds Five. While Folds played it ‘because all kids like a waltz,’ some of the adults in the crowd broke convention and danced, while a mob of kangaroos watched on in the distance.
The sardonic All You Can Eat off his 2002 EP Sunny 16 was followed by the coming-of-age thoughtfulness of Still Fighting It and Zac and Sara, who he dedicated to a fan and sound engineer who was gravely ill.
Ben Folds is renowned for his live performance and engaging crowds as part of his show. Taking on the part of Regina Spektor, in his duet You Don’t Know Me the crowd didn’t miss a beat, singing along in great voice, before joining in, singing along to Ascent of Stan, before Folds evidenced his mastery, creating an in-the-moment, and unique Bimbadgen version of his live set crowd favourite, Rock this Bitch.
“We’re in a field somewhere in the middle of wine country with kangaroos and a black golf cart appears in the distance, and we’re rockin’ this bitch.
“The black golf cart and all the children are restless, when I was their age I wet my pants at things like this and we’re rocking this bitch,” Folds crooned, making up the lyrics and melody on the fly.
The crowd sang along, enjoying the irreverence of Effington and the melancholy of hit single Landed before joining in as a makeshift horn section for the Ben Folds Five hit Army.
Folds closed out his set with the loving sentiment of The Luckiest – the crowd quietly swooning and singing along, enjoying the moment before jigging around in their chairs, and jumping to their feet for One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces.
The enthusiastic crowd tempted Folds back to the stage for an encore performance of the fan favourite My Philosophy. It was a fitting end to a set that evoked many feelings – fun, joy, nostalgia and a touch of melancholy.
Australian soulful songstress Gordi was a well matched support for Folds, wooing the crowd with her silky voice and emotive lyrics. It was a brilliant showcase for the singer-songwriter, with the audience enthralled by her talent and charm.
This is the power of live music and the connection created amongst strangers at gigs and festivals, and it is a sense of feeling that people have been missing, with many punters hanging around after Folds’ encore, enjoying being out-and-about and basking in the beautiful sunset on a warm Autumn day.
Kudos to the promoters for revamping the A Day on the Green model to embrace the changed confidence of the live music punter, who might be concerned about large crowds and how COVID-19 restrictions like social distancing are managed in a festival environment.
Each group of ticket holders had their own space, clearly marked on the ground, and there was ample room to move between your seat, the amenities and food stalls and bar. The totem tennis sets were a nice touch for the mixed-age crowd, with children, and the young at heart, playing together in a spirit of fun.
The Cellar Door Series looks to be a good solution to possible punter concerns, while still delivering on the Bimbadgen Estate’s A Day on the Green promise, of a good time, great food and wine in a relaxed atmosphere.
I hope that more punters heed the call back to live music and that promoters continue to have the confidence to keep pushing local music, trusting that festival-goers will be lured back by of love of the experience, even if the framework of the ‘the new normal’ looks a little different to what we’re used to.
Photos by Tim Bradshaw Photography Media & Services