“So you wanted to take a break,
Slow it down some and have some space.
Well, fuck you too!”
— Ben Folds Five, “Song For The Dumped”
At some point in the early moments of the new century, solo Ben Folds became the poster-child for the label “collegiate wise-ass.” When I saw him live in 2004 as part of a triple-threat with Rufus Wainwright and Guster, he earned his biggest cheers for his concert staple “Rock Out With Your Cock Out” and that twisted cover of “Bitches Ain’t Shit” he will never be able to put in the rear-view, not for his considerable catalog of hits.
That is unfortunate, because when he was part of Ben Folds Five, with Darrin Jesse and Robert Sledge, his occasional turns into smart-assery were often tempered with moments of introspection few other artists could rival. Plus, as part of a trio of piano, bass and drums, Folds proves more capable of flat-out rocking, even without the presence of a guitar. Every time I’ve seen him solo with just his piano, there’s something lacking, even when he still can bust out a mean “Miserlou” until the piano’s keys cry out for mercy.
Of course Folds isn’t the only child of the ’90s to revel in the world of collegiate humor. The decade’s alternative scene provided shelter to bands like Cake, Barenaked Ladies and Soul Coughing, whose songs danced an awkward line between straightforward pop and more unclassifiable diversions. It was the wild era Mike Doughty spoke of when he described the period — record companies would sign anyone who had even the slightest credibility on the streets, never understanding what would make a hit song. It’s also the process which destroyed Semisonic, a band doomed to be a one-hit-wonder simply because label execs clearly couldn’t recognize the hit potential in any of their other equally ear-catching melodies.
But I digress. It’s sufficient to say that, once Ben Folds Five broke up, freed from the constraints of being part of a band, he was free to explore the jokier side of his personality, which often obscured just how good his songs were. Without Jesse and Sledge the balance was off. Folds still had songs which were pitch-perfect character studies (few will ever top “Fred Jones, Part 2”, “Gracie” or “Landed” off Songs For Silverman) but without a cobbled-together live band, he couldn’t give his best songs any real depth in front of an audience. That was the beauty of Ben Folds Five in the first place, that those three guys came together at the right time to craft these incredible songs which defined their era for those who experienced them.
When I heard the band had reunited, I was immediately excited, but wondered if, after all that space they’d taken to find their way solo, they might just not have what it took to rock a crowd the way they had when filming, say, Sessions at West 54th in the late stages of their original run. Ben Folds Five Live, the band’s first-ever live album dropped this spring and didn’t quite assuage those fears. The recordings chosen for the LP frequently followed the originals too closely, and the crowd itself is so muted in the mix, there’s no real sense of the raw energy a Ben Folds Five show is supposed to provide.
But when Barenaked Ladies teamed up with both Ben Folds Five and Guster for a second round of their Last Summer On Earth tour, I saw an opportunity to experience for myself just what the reunited Five still had to offer. The answer was surprising — despite spending more than a decade apart, Folds, Jesse and Sledge have brought the band back together and managed to sound fresh-faced, energetic and above all modern.
In mixing both the classic Ben Folds Five compositions and those from the band’s 2012 comeback The Sound of the Life of the Mind, the band crafted a lively set which balanced Folds’ take on humor (the “if you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on a wall” chorus of “Draw A Crowd”) with extended jazz-fueled jams that managed to expand the originals (including a ripping nine-and-a-half minute take on “Narcolepsy”). The hits were there as well — “Brick” still rips wounds wide open like it did the first time I heard it, after Adam Duritz lured me in with his “got Ben Folds on my radio right now” call-out on Recovering The Satellites. And “Song For The Dumped” and “One Angry Dwarf (And Two Hundred Solemn Faces)” both draw on deep veins of raw teenage expression, lending the catalyst for fiery live versions which drew the crowd in and left us drained, but still wanting more.
That’s what the live album they hastily produced can’t do, could never be expected to do. The beauty of the Five is that these guys come together with raw furious keyboards, bass and percussion and create a full-band dynamic few other bands of their era could muster. The songs are brilliantly crafted and rarely seem dated. Fans of a certain age discovering Ben Folds and his cohorts for the first time should find the live experience just as expressive as those seeing the band again after the decade-long absence. That they could capably fit “Sky High” and “Do It Anyway” into the set amid the Five’s classics and not have either seem jarring or ill-fitting showcases just how well these three work together.
Barenaked Ladies, however, didn’t come out of the night with such a perfect image. The band, minus the sadly departed Steven Page, has a deep catalog of hits to mine live, but they often fall back on their jokier tone when playing to a crowd. Having seen them last summer as well, during a much stronger performance at Indianapolis’s Old National Center, I was prepared to hear the hits (“The Old Apartment”, “One Week”, “Pinch Me” and “If I Had $1,000,000”) mixed in with material from the band’s latest, Grinning Streak. They’re generally good about bringing the hits and playing so many songs you can’t help but have a good time even if, say, they never play your favorite..
Problem was, this time out the band couldn’t stop playing up the same tired jokes over and over. Though they were in as fine a form as you can be without Page on the many hits he’d made his mark on, they rode a lame joke about a local Cincinnati attorney into the ground. Yes, the show was at a casino. Yes, it was funny that the lawyer’s tag was “why roll the dice?” on a cheesy billboard which kept making me want to say “Better Call Saul!” But the joke didn’t get funnier with repetition, as much as they wanted it to. The best joke that landed was when they introduced “One Week” by first playing the opening verse to “Army” by Ben Folds Five. Which only managed to leave this listener wishing the two bands had been reversed on the bill, giving Folds and company a chance to play another half-dozen songs they’d had to leave off the list.
Ben Folds Five showcased a set which has potential to vary wildly from night to night, drawing on any number of tracks including some of Folds’ stronger solo efforts like the seven-four rocker “Bastard” or “Landed” (which the band did handle with ease, making it difficult for anyone not already informed to know it wasn’t a Ben Folds Five composition in the first place.) Barenaked Ladies, meanwhile, played a predictable set which featured all the hits fans paid to hear, but little variety. Once you’ve seen the show we got in Cincinnati, you’ve seen every Barenaked Ladies show you’re ever going to see.
If you’re on the fence, take my word for it — this Ben Folds Five reunion is more than worth the cost of admission, a comeback tour you’ll want to see in more than one city in hopes of catching the occasional obscure album track. Take the Ben Folds Five Live album as the grain-of-salt that it is, a well-intended attempt to bring the live show to life in your headphones. There isn’t, however, a substitute for watching Folds, Jesse and Sledge rock on stage as though they never stopped.
We gave them time to find some space, and didn’t even greet them with a rousing “fuck you!” when they returned. Our reward? Their comeback album was no fluke, and judging by their chemistry as a trio onstage in Cincinnati I’d suspect there are more classic singles to come.