Ben Folds and the Royal Northern Sinfonia in Manchester

Me and Ben Folds.
With Ben Folds outside the 9:30 Club in Washington DC, summer 2002 Ben Folds Live tour.

First, some back story: I discovered Ben Folds Five in middle school, and my love for them is as vast as the sea of time between now and then. A girl called Jen (who was super into Britpop and was listening to Oasis and Blur long before anyone else I knew, so was therefore the coolest person ever to my middle-school self) let me borrow Whatever And Ever Amen one day and I was hooked.

I saw them live twice before they split, and I’ve seen Ben live on his own more times than I can recall. In 2012, when Ben Folds Five announced they were getting back together after 13 years AND TOURING it was like someone telling me I’d won a small jackpot. I got to see my favourite band playing together again, in Glasgow of all places, and it was even better than I wanted it to be.

I will never, ever turn down a chance to see Ben live, so when I heard he was back over here playing with a full orchestra, I jumped at the chance. It was a great excuse to see a new city, and perhaps fitting it should be Manchester, the home of so much of my original BF5 hookup’s most-loved music.

This was also my first ever time seeing an orchestra in a proper music hall, which was super exciting and made me feel all fancy. (I even wore a dress.) Classical music isn’t really something I know much about, so Ben’s piano concerto was a good way in. It’s a very different thing from his usual fare, but the piece had such personality. And around that, he played a really good variety of his songs with full orchestra backing, ‘Steven’s Last Night in Town’ being the ultimate highlight. Between the melodica and all the layers of vocal harmony on the original track, there’s a lot to work with there. It spread impressively over the crazy wide range of instruments in an orchestra and was such a treat. I kind of wanted it to last forever.

Being a Ben Folds show, it couldn’t possibly go without some audience participation – three-part harmony for ‘Not the Same’ and the whole hall yelling ‘fuck’ at top volume multiple times, while also periodically dissolving into laughter, during ‘Rockin’ the Suburbs’. And improv, of course! We were treated to a dramatic, soundtrack/score to the Bridgewater Hall’s fire procedures. (‘I’ve always really wanted to yell ‘FIRE!’ in a crowded hall.’) He taught every section of the (properly solid and badass) orchestra what he wanted them to play on the spot, and then had two people from the audience do the voice-overs. Totally brilliant.

Apart from the gig, I had an absolutely brilliant time in Manchester. I couldn’t have asked for a better two days. The weather was almost criminally perfect, which made the city look fantastic and have a completely chilled out English summer vibe. It also meant I got to do all my eating and drinking outside, and plenty of wandering about.

My first stop was the Museum of Science and Industry, which I was excited to see, but because it was so nice out, I ended up buzzing off after about an hour and a half because I couldn’t bear to waste the weather. I did learn an awful lot about gas-powered energy and sewage and sanitation through the ages, and I love stuff like that. If the weather had been bad, I’d have loved to look around much longer – the place is ENORMOUS. And I would have paid for the Collider exhibition, which looked pretty exciting.

I wandered towards all the beer gardens along the water I’d seen on my walk in from the train station. The Pixies were also playing that night in Castlefield (what a choice of gigs to have!) so there were lots of people about for that, and I listened the soundcheck as I sat outside having a pint and watching the boats come through lock 92 on the Bridgewater canal. (I totally want to take a canal boat holiday now. Watching people with their dogs and their cups of tea leisurely waiting for their boats to raise or lower in the lock convinced me it is probably an ideal way to spend a week.)

After the start of my day drinking, I walked along the canal and the river out to Salford Quays so I could check into my hotel and change for the night. I also had a wander around MediaCityUK while listening to Radcliffe and Maconie on 6Music, which is my usual afternoon work listening fodder. Total nerdy thrill knowing they were broadcasting right there.

I made my way back into town and had a pint at Cask, which I’d spotted earlier in the morning. It reminded me of Starbar in Edinburgh (one of my favourites) with more great real ale choices and an even better jukebox, if that’s even possible. I wish they’d done food, but as they didn’t, I went to a Mexican place, Lucha Libre, that had cracking fish tacos and a decent margarita. (But totally disappointing guacamole. Tex-mex joints take note, you live and die by your guacamole. You can’t afford to screw that business up.)

Then after the gig, on local recommendation, I went for a pint at The Britons Protection, which had loads of great beer and a big beer garden out back, which they didn’t boot anyone out of at 10pm as they usually do in Edinburgh. Score! I sat on my own for a while but the Pixies gig must have let out just after Ben, because a whole load of folk filled the place in and I ended up sharing a table with some guys who, upon hearing they’d chosen the Pixies over Ben, were totally torn up about the fact that they’d missed Ben Folds with an orchestra (I was equally bummed that I couldn’t see the Pixies). Usually, when I say ‘Ben Folds’, I get a lot of blank looks, but I was delightfully shocked that these guys were fans. We had more beer and there was good talk about music and Manchester and travel and life. It was such a perfect end to the day.

More great beer and food the next day, including breakfast with my friend Kate at the awesomely named North Tea Power. I had a good wander around all the indie and vintage shops in the Northern Quarter. Affleck’s endless caverns of music posters, pins, tshirts, and hair dye would have made my teenage self weep with joy, and I actually didn’t let myself enter any record shops for fear I would not be able to keep my ‘no buying stuff’ will-power in check. I had another al fresco pint and an extremely tasty hanging kebab at The Oast House before heading back to Edinburgh on the train.

I’m not the best at being social and outgoing, particularly when I’m on my own, but when I told my friend Jen (different Jen from middle school, of course) I was going to Manchester for this gig, she said the best thing about the city was the people, and she was right. Mancunians are absolutely lovely and friendly. They’ve got great chat and they love, love, love their music. They made it much easier than usual for me to come out of my shell, which is what I need more of in life. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back for a gig, or even just a pub crawl.

Ben Folds with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, 10 July 2014, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Eating and drinking
Warehouse Cafe at MOSI
Dukes 92
Lucha Libre
The Britons Protection
North Tea Power
The Oast House

Premier Inn Salford Quays

On the kindle
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

In the headphones
The Stone Roses
Foster the People

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