The Ben Folds Five reunion tour hit Houston’s Bayou Music Center on a Tuesday night, which might have accounted for the fact that the venue was only about 2/3rds full by the time the band hit the stage. It probably didn’t help that the cheapest tickets to the show were $53 once the Ticketmaster service charges were added. Also, the Bayou Music Center itself is a theater that holds about twice as many people as the mid-size clubs Folds usually plays when he comes through Houston. So there were a lot of contributing factors to why the house wasn’t full, but that didn’t stop the band from playing a heck of a show.
First up, though, was Australian singer Kate Miller-Heidke. I saw Miller-Heidke open for a Ben Folds solo show a couple years ago and wasn’t impressed. It was clear that she had once been an opera singer who had decided to go towards pop music, and at the time she leaned heavily on her operatic voice, often to the detriment of the songs. This time around, she was much improved. Her set, mostly drawn from her 2012 album Nightflight, seemed to show her figuring out how to make her voice and songwriting work as allies. Along with acoustic guitarist and backup vocalist Keir Nuttall, Miller-Heidke put on a strong 30 minute set. The highlights came near the end, when she pulled out a cover of Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” that was both goofy and impressive. It’s also tailor-made for the Ben Folds crowd, since Ben himself has done the “pop singer covers rap song” bit in the past. But it was the delicate story song “Sarah” that was most affecting. Miller-Heidke tells a story of being at a big Australian music festival when she was a teenager and losing track of her friend Sarah. The song builds up to a big chorus where Miller-Heidke retroactively apologizes, and finishes with Sarah showing up at her parents’ house two weeks later with no memory of what happened in between. As a story, it’s a bit of an unsolved mystery cliché, but Miller-Heidke’s emotional delivery really sells the song.
Ben Folds Five opened with a song from their new album The Sound of the Life of the Mind, the upbeat and catchy “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”. Then they headed back to the Whatever and Ever Amen song “Missing the War”. It was sort of an unconventional pair of opening songs, but it showed that the band’s trademark harmonies are still in great shape after 12 years of being apart. Still, the combination of a brand new song and a slower old song had the crowd taking full advantage of the fact that this was a seated show. Although the audience was enthusiastic, the vast majority of them stayed in their seats until a run of crowd-pleasers near the end of the concert.
Next up was another new song, the gentle, contemplative “Hold That Thought”. Drummer Darren Jesse’s rolling snare beats gave the song forward propulsion live, and kept it from being a dead spot in the show. After that, the audience was treated to an old-school favorite, “Jackson Cannery”, which had the folks around me singing along. The set continued in this vein, nicely mixing up the band’s faster material with the slower stuff, and finding a nice balance between new songs and old. It seemed like much of the crowd was already familiar with the new material, but only six of the 20 full songs the band played came from the album.
Folds is also apparently leaving space in the shows for the band to do some improvised jamming, a holdover from his solo concerts. In Houston, the band created an impromptu happy birthday song for Tammy, who was celebrating her 40th birthday. The tune was upbeat and found Folds and Jesse in particular doing some jazzy improv, much to the crowd’s delight. A bit later, Folds was having some trouble with his monitor, so while a stage tech was working on it the band had at it again. Finally, in the middle of set closer “Song for the Dumped” bassist Robert Sledge took his feedback-drenched solo to the extreme, unplugging his bass and just pressing the cord connector into his hand. This resulted in a truly terrible buzzing noise that somehow led to Folds calling out for a “Weather Channel Jam.” So the band proceeded to improvise some dead-on perfect lite jazz that could easily have accompanied a Local on the 8’s weather update.
Folds also got into some of his typical storytelling between songs. He introduced “The Battle of Who Could Care Less” by talking about how its genesis came from ‘90s slacker culture, and how he originally envisioned it as a debate between two characters, General Apathy and Major Boredom. He also trotted out what must be his favorite Houston story (since he also told it his last time in town, in 2010), of a time he was on the road to Houston during a solo tour. While driving on the highway, the tour van pulled up next to a brightly colored van decorated with the name “Almost Willy” and a phone number. He turned out to be a Willy Nelson impersonator who was available for parties and such. So Folds called him up and talked the guy into opening the show in Houston that night. The guy only knew about two songs and a bunch of dirty jokes, but the crowd apparently loved him.
There were a few nice surprises among the setlist. The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner standout “Magic” was a welcome treat, although Darren Jesse pounding on his drumset toms with fuzzy mallets isn’t much of a substitute for the original recording’s timpani. The fan favorite B-side “Emaline” also drew big cheers, and I was personally very excited to hear “Draw a Crowd”, a high-energy highlight off of the new album. It was also a nice surprise to hear the band play a Ben Folds solo song, “Landed”. This got a huge crowd reaction, which surprised me, but maybe it was just as much of an unexpected delight to the rest of the audience as it was to me.
The band brought the crowd to their feet (finally!) for “Philosophy”, which was played mercifully straight this time around. Folds tends to go into a pretty terrible piano rendition of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” in the middle of this song when he plays it solo, and that didn’t happen here. They followed it up with the equally energetic “Kate” and closed with a pounding rendition of “Song for the Dumped” (aside from the Weather Channel diversion), which had the whole audience shouting “Fuck you, too!” along with the band.
The trio came back out for an encore and finished up with two more high energy crowd favorites, “Underground” and “Army”. The former had people up and dancing all over the theater. As for “Army”, Folds has been having audiences sing the song’s horn parts for so long now that he no longer even bothers to try to divide the crowd in half and teach them those parts beforehand. And sure enough, the crowd enthusiastically sang those bits while the band drove hard towards the end of the song.
It was a great show, buoyed at the end by a strong crowd reaction. The previous two times I saw Folds in Houston (both on a weekend), the crowd was filled with drunk assholes and inconsiderately rude talking people, and it was a big enough problem to visibly affect Folds’ performance at points. Maybe it was the fact that it was a weekday show or the high ticket price, but those half-hearted “fans” didn’t seem to show up this time out, resulting in a much better experience for the band and the audience.