"Adults left with a smile, and children left with some new profanities."
Of all of Melbourne's fabulous outdoor entertainment options over summer, few hold the ongoing appeal of the Zoo Twilights series. Tonight is a sell-out performance by Ben Folds, with support from Lucy Rose.
The grassed areas are teeming with people, and families fit picnic blankets into the ever-diminishing available space like a game of Tetris with charcuterie platters. After a visit to wave at the collared peccaries, it's time to open a bottle of wine and enjoy the atmosphere.
English singer-songwriter Lucy Rose eases the crowd into the weekend, with a short and sharp set of heartbreaking tunes. "It's my first time playing at a zoo," she smiles. Her powerful lilting vocals soothe the stresses of the week away, and her quick humour wins over the crowd almost immediately. Rose's voice is stunning, accompanied only by sparse guitar strums. She introduces her next song, Shiver as one of her most depressing. "If you're having fun prepare for a change," she quips. Despite the warning Shiver, with its melancholy lyrics, is a particularly gorgeous moment. She resonates with the crowd, and after her set can be seen chatting with the new fans surrounding her.
After a break (and a particularly cute video about the eastern barred bandicoot and the dogs being trained to babysit them), Ben Folds pops up on the stage without any pomp or ceremony, simply taking a seat at the piano and playing. Opening with Phone In A Pool, Folds is immediately transfixing.
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As he plays Annie Waits, many junior members of the audience are delighted to see themselves on the big screen and a sea of excited little hands shoot into the air. Tonight it is just Folds and a Steinway, and he seems relaxed and happy while mugging for the photographers in the pit.
Uncle Walter seems to have eerily foreshadowed the Trump presidency with Folds saying that while everything seemed ridiculous on writing, "little did I know they would become policy". Still Fighting It is beautiful, as is Landed. Hearing these songs as they were written, with simply a piano, is a treat. They somehow manage to seem stripped-back, and richly layered at the same time.
"Animals like waltzes, I'm not oblivious that I'm playing at the zoo I have giraffes on my shirt," says Folds before playing Not A Fan. The audience steps in for Regina Spektor on You Don't Know Me, before a drum kit is whisked on to the stage for Folds to play a tight solo on.
The setlist for the second half is made up of paper plane requests, which is exactly what it sounds like. Fans launch their requests via paper planes towards the stage. Having initially never thought it possible to potentially lose an eye at a Ben Folds concert, this writer stands corrected.
Folds wanders around the stage, picking a paper plane at random and playing whichever song is written on it. The paper plane gods decide we will hear classics such as Zak & Sara, Not The Same, and even our own version of Rock This Bitch ("I rock this bitch for the animals too, I rock this bitch in Melbourne Zoo").
Brick is a sombre moment, and the crowd is pin-drop quiet. It still holds water all these years later, and is truly a masterpiece of songwriting. Folds' lyrics are vivid, so much so that you can almost see the condensation of his breath that cold December morning.
A punter yells, "under the piano, the big yellow one", to which Folds replies "I must respect the process." He does eventually retrieve the plane, which contains pictures of a little girl and a request for Gracie. One can only imagine that there is a very happy little Gracie in the audience tonight.
Army is an enormous singalong, and when sung loudly enough is a healthy way to exorcise those teen regret demons. Closer Rockin' The Suburbs is a hoot, though an encore would have been much appreciated.
It was a pleasure to spend the evening in the company of Folds and his songs, which run the gauntlet of humour and heartbreak, love and loss, and birth and death. Adults left with a smile, and children left with some new profanities.