October 1997, Vic Theatre, Chicago. I’m in the balcony with my two best friends and wife-to-be, watching Ben Folds Five positively tear the place down. “You know, Ben will never break this band up,” I said to my buddy Tim. “He has the best backup band in the world. He has this jazz drummer (Darren Jessee) who hits harder than John Bonham, and a bass player (Robert Sledge) who wants to play Kiss covers. And both of those guys can sing, too! There’s no way he’d ever find a group of musicians that suits him better than these two guys.”
Should have kept that to myself. Two and a half years later, Ben Folds Five disbands, under supposedly amicable terms, but really, are they ever truly amicable? Just like that, one of the hottest live bands I’ve ever seen is gone, finished, kaput. A moment of silence, if you please.
Ben Folds Phase II began two years later with Rockin’ the Suburbs, a polished, infinitely more accessible pop record that explained more about the Five’s demise than any press release ever could. The one thing their catalog misses to this day is a comprehensive live album. There is an excellent DVD, Sessions at West 54th, but it only covers their first two albums. There are the live cuts from Naked Baby Photos, the 1998 B-sides album that cashed in on the success of left field hit single “Brick”, but most of the selections are piss takes, and many of their best songs are absent. There are also scores of live tracks scattered all over import singles, but there is no single disc that successfully captures the majesty of Ben Folds Five live.
Folds’ attempt to rectify this oversight is Ben Folds Live, recorded during his solo tour (Ben, piano, audience) earlier this year. His former band’s catalog is well represented, along with a good dose of Suburbs and one very well chosen cover. However, it is, to quote the title of a song from Suburbs, not the same. An evening with Ben Folds on piano may be a fun time in person, but it doesn’t make for an overwhelming live album. Folds is at his best when he lets it all hang out, which he can only do when he has his cast of idiots to watch his back. Bottom line: he picked the wrong tour to record. The first leg of this tour, with a full band, would have made for a much more interesting listen.
The album doesn’t really get cooking until track 11 — or, more accurately, the last two minutes of track 10, due to the way the tracks are cut — with the great lost single “Army”. Ben turns the audience into a “bitchin’ horn section” by getting one half to sing the trumpet line and the other half to do the saxophone line, and the results are astounding. “The Last Polka”, arguably Folds’ best song about relationships, follows, and Folds somehow finds a way to play those impossible riffs even faster live. His extended version of “Philosophy”, complete with rap-style break section and a few bars of “Misirlou”, is another highlight and a fond reminder of the funny interludes Ben Folds Five would explore. But it’s his version of “Tiny Dancer” that is the kind of thing that solo piano concerts were made for. It allowed Folds the opportunity to step outside of himself for a second and be a fan, albeit a very talented fan, and pay tribute. And the tribute is beautiful. Following it with the brief, impromptu “Rock This Bitch” is nothing short of inspired.
But hitting stride on track 11 is about 10 songs too late. On paper, the opening one-two punch of “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” and “Zak and Sara” must have seemed like a slam dunk. Both songs are high-energy fan favorites. But they’re sorely lacking as solo pieces, leaving the audience to fill in the missing instruments in their heads. The four ballads that follow, including new song “Silver Street”, don’t help matters much either, though the audience contributing backing vocals to “Not the Same” is pretty nifty. The trifecta of “Fred Jones Part 2”, “Brick”, and “Narcolepsy” is even more frustrating. Those songs are fine in their respective places on their albums, but all in a row, on piano only, turns them and the album into Ben Folds Cures Insomnia. “Narcolepsy” is done a particular disservice, since the original has some kick to it, and its placement on this album couldn’t be worse. (Insert your own joke sleep joke here) Also, his singing is all over the place.
This, of course, is all academic. Folds’ fans are slavishly devoted and legion, and will snap this album up and love it no matter which songs and which versions made the final cut. But it seems a crime of nature that the only proper release that documents any of Ben Folds Five’s work in concert would be a piano-only album from their former leader. Perhaps it’s testament and tribute to Jessee and Sledge that Folds chose to use versions performed solely by him instead of his backing band from the first leg of his solo tour. A better move would have been to release a proper Ben Folds Five live album, showcasing the full force and fury those three could muster, and putting off Ben’s solo live album until he had some more material under his belt. Folds used to call his music punk rock for sissies, but Ben Folds Live is far more sissy than punk. What a shame. Jessee and Sledge deserved better.