Ben Folds – Smoke (Live with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra)
Going to see your favourite artist perform live is great isn’t it? My first ever pop concert was Pet Shop Boys‘ MCMLXXXIX tour (tickets £14.50!) at the SECC in Glasgow – my pals and I drove up from our home town of Dumfries one Monday night in July 1989 with little idea of what to expect other than the snippets that had appeared in the NME and Smash Hits.
I don’t think anything can adequately prepare you for the excitement you experience when the bass is so thunderous that you can feel it passing through your body like a particularly significant bowel movement. Songs that have lived largely inside your head and inside your bedroom suddenly become massive, expansive beasts uniting thousands of people, and every time one of your favourites comes on it becomes a moment you can never forget.
The show was so overwhelmingly brilliant that I immediately came out to my friends in the car park afterwards as it was the only thing that could possibly add any further drama to the night. My best friend took to carrying around a laminated picture of Neil Tennant in his wallet for some months afterwards. That’s the power of a great pop concert right there.
Live recordings, however, are another matter altogether. With very few exceptions they never manage to recapture what it was like to be there – and they’re invariably much tinnier – so they tend to become a nice keepsake rather than something you listen to a lot. That being said, I allow three exceptions to this rule. The first is Depeche Mode‘s 101 version of Everything Counts, which comes across as supremely confident and genuinely stadium-sized. The second is Madonna‘s Confessions Tour version of Like a Virgin, which proves that Stuart Price should be given free reign to reswizzle her entire catalogue. The third is by Ben Folds, who transforms the intimate Smoke into a string-laden (but still intimate) masterpiece:
It begins almost anonymously, sounding a bit like the aftermath of Alderaan being blasted into smithereens in Star Wars. The audience doesn’t have a clue what song’s coming – but when the strings start and the piano melody announces the arrival of the beloved Smoke you can literally hear their joy – there’s a whistle of delight from one of the crowd at 0:27 that brings a lump to my throat every time.
Smoke is one of the great break-up songs of all time: The lyrics “Leaf by leaf and page by page/Throw this book away/All the sadness, all the rage/Throw this book away/Rip out the binding and tear the glue/And all of the grief we never even knew/We had it all along, now, it’s smoke” were devastating enough on the Ben Folds Five original, but with a swelling orchestra added to the mix it becomes an all-encompassing symphony of grief. If you think this sounds like a depressing way to spend five minutes, please be assured – it’s not.
Ben Folds has never quite achieved the level of success in the UK that he deserves. I sometimes think that as a nation we go “American man with a piano? We have Billy Joel for that.” This is a terrible shame, as he’s a) amazing and b) quite the Anglophile, as anyone who’s heard his rendition of Video Killed the Radio star will attest.
Entered chart: was not released
Who could sing this today and have a hit? John Legend.