Last Thursday, I took a trip to Holyoke, MA with my girlfriend to Mountain Park to see the first tour show of Ben Folds Five, which has recently reunited to record a new album entitled “The Sound of the Life of the Mind,” which came out yesterday. This was especially exciting, as it was the first show that Ben Folds Five had done (save a one-time performance in 2008) since the 90s.
A Short History of Ben Folds Five
Ben Folds Five is comprised of three guys — Ben Folds (piano, lead vocals) Robert Sledge (bass) and Darren Jessee (drums), with one of the jokes being that Folds has enough of an ego for three people to round out the five. The band formed in the early 90s and produced three records — “Ben Folds Five” (critically acclaimed, but commercially a typical first album) in 1995, “Whatever and Ever Amen” (critically acclaimed and a commercial success — if you know any Ben Folds Five songs, it is likely to be “Brick” off of this album) in 1997 and “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner” (sort of a ‘meh’ reaction both critically and commercially) in 1999. The band split after this — Ben Folds went solo to do a number of various interesting things such as his own albums (including “Rocking the Suburbs” and “Way To Normal”), multiple covers that received widespread attention (see: “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” “Such Great Heights,” “Sleazy”), hosting The Sing-Off and singing to people on Chatroulette during a concert (go find it yourself, you know how to use Google).
We arrived to the concert slightly late — we missed the opener (sorry, Kate Miller-Heidke) but arrived just in time for Ben Folds Five to take the stage. The show started off somewhat slowly, playing songs from their new album including (but not limited to) “Erase Me” and “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later.” The songs were decent, but none of them truly stuck out as hitting the same high notes as found on previous Ben Folds Five albums, although it is likely that they will sound much more appealing upon multiple plays now that the album is available. Nonetheless, Ben Folds brought an enormous amount of energy to the stage — and on most if not all of his songs he was able to achieve things with the piano that I did not believe were possible. It is entirely possible I was too mesmerized by his hands to truly appreciate the music being performed.
(Side note — the concert for Ben Folds Five was set up differently from any other concert I had been to at Mountain Park. Usually, tickets are just general admission, and you can choose to sit on lawn chairs or blankets in the back or stand up and get really very close to the stage. At Ben Folds Five, however, there were chairs for people who bought the more expensive tickets, and then a fence separating those people from the unwashed masses who had merely purchased generally admission tickets. We were part of the unwashed masses. It was modestly disappointing — I usually like being able to get up close, and chairs really are a hindrance to dancing. Luckily, the masses broke through the fence for the encore, which was possibly the second most enjoyable part of the concert.)
Everyone got very excited, however, when Ben Folds Five played three of their most popular songs – “Brick,” followed by “Army,” followed by “One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces.” This was truly the moment when the crowd got into the show. Everyone was singing along or dancing, or providing the part of the saxophone in Army in a call-and-response that had become a staple of Ben Folds live shows.
The most entertaining part of the show, at least in this reviewer’s humble opinion, was the time when someone shouted out “You’re not an asshole, Ben!” (context unimportant.) Folds, obviously amused by this shout of affection, went straight to the piano to begin improvising a song based on that quote. A quick melody, some slightly derivative lyrics — and it was one of the most original and refreshing things I’ve seen at any concert.
A Thesis on Ben Folds
Ben Folds is quite possibly the most talented technical musician of our generation. He’s especially talented at the piano, probably more than any non-classical musician alive. You get the point — he is very, very good. My argument for this is pretty simple — beyond everything else, Ben Folds is fantastic at improvisation and covers. His covers are (again, in my opinion) the most consistent and finest of any artist, and he can pick up an interesting, ear catching melody very quickly. This main issue is that Folds has a difficulty in taking these songs to full term — turning them from decent melodies and interesting pieces into full songs much less full albums. This is why listening to Ben Folds improvise or do covers can be mesmerizing — he is able to reveal qualities of music that would be hidden without his abilities on the piano (would anyone think that “Bitches Ain’t Shit” is a love song without his touch?). But his song writing abilities on the whole evoke a sort of indifference from the listener, in which aside from a few very good songs, makes you want to throw up your hands and go “eh.” But as long as he still does covers, we’ll be happy to have him.