A Personal History with the Music of Ben Folds

A few things before you start reading. First, this entry is essentially a preface to my review of The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective, which you can read here. However, both can be read and appreciated individually. Second, this is a fairly long post, so I don’t blame you if you choose not to read it, or stop at any point. This was something that I really needed to get out and there was no way to keep it short. Last, all of the pictures in this post were taken by me. Enjoy!

Everyone has one. Maybe several of them, but usually it’s just one. That one artist or band that changes your life. You hear their music and it connects with you. You don’t know why or how, but it does, and it makes a bond with you that will last your entire life, even if you fall in and out of favor with their music. Everyone has one, even if they don’t recognize it.

Mine is Ben Folds. More specifically it’s Ben Folds Five, but I have history with his solo work, too.

May 8, 2005 @ 9:30 Club, Washington D.C.

From the moment that I saw the video for “Battle of Who Could Care Less” on MTV back in the spring of 1997, my life changed. Maybe it was the fact that there were no guitars, or just the fact that the song was so damn good, I really don’t know, but there was an instant connection. I freaked out (not really, but kind of). Shortly after I went out and bought Whatever and Ever Amen. From the first notes of “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” I knew I had not only made a great purchase, but I had found a new band that I truly loved. That summer I found out Ben Folds Five had another album, and bought that (Ben Folds Five). I was infatuated.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I was starting high school and things in my life were changing. My group of friends was changing. My band was about to fall apart. Everyone was having growth spurts, and I still looked like I was 10. And my favorite band at the time, Dave Matthews Band, was about to become super popular at my school, which made me lose interest in them (it didn’t help they were putting out some sub-par music). But I still had Ben Folds Five.

Even when “Brick” became a Top 40 hit, I held firm (I wasn’t a fan of the song to begin with, thought it has grown on me as I’ve gotten older). I joined a band based on the fact the bass player had the case for Naked Baby Photos lying on the floor in his basement; the band became Zanzibar Scuf, and the guys are still some of my closest friends. I got my dad to take me (and my brother, and some friends) to see Ben Folds Five out on Long Island when they opened for Beck in 1998.  Then again in June, 1999, during the The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner tour, in Central Park, where they played with a string section and horn section; one of my favorite shows of all time. My band began to cover “Army,” the first of many Ben Folds Five and Ben Folds songs. Then it happened.

October 31, 2000. It was my brother who told me. He read it on MTV.com.

Ben Folds Five had broken up.

I was stunned. I cried. Then I started to listen to their albums, and just lay in bed.

Soon after, I found out that Ben Folds was going to have a song on the soundtrack for How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Thanks to a file sharing program, I got it when it was released. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t the same. Still it was something.

Darren Jessee, the drummer, played a gig in New York City that January (2001), and my friend John (the keyboard player from Scuf) and I went to see him. We were kind of disappointed, though we loved his song about Graceland (don’t remember what it was called). Still, it was nothing like Ben Folds Five.

Then it was announced that Ben was putting out a solo album later that year, called Rockin’ The Suburbs. The release date was going to be in July, but it got pushed back to September 11. Somehow, my friend got a hold of the album before it was released. I didn’t want a copy, because I wanted to buy it. Still, I listened. Once. I had already heard “Rockin’ the Suburbs” and really liked it, but the rest of the album didn’t hit me right away.

But on 9/11, as dazed and numb as I was, I went out and bought the album, then sat down and properly listened to it in my dorm room. I liked it. It was good. Very good. It wasn’t Ben Folds Five, but I knew it wasn’t going to be. Still, it made me happy, and gave me hope that this musical connection still had legs.

There was the release of the Ben Folds Five: Complete Sessions at West 54th DVD the next month. Then there was the fantastic show at Town Hall in New York City the night before Thanksgiving, with a band that rivaled the musicality and passion of Ben Folds Five. I was excited again.

January 9, 2003 @ Beacon Theater, NYC

By this time I had joined an online community called BenFolds.org. It became part of my life, and it was where I could talk about Ben Folds and Ben Folds Five as much as I wanted. These were fans that were as hardcore as I was. It was there that I heard about, and downloaded, the first truly solo show that Ben did, at the Bowery Ballroom in December. Soon there was talk about him going out alone with just a piano, touring the country and recording a live album. John and I got tickets to the D.C. and New York shows. They were back to back nights, June 12th and 13th, 2002. Both were amazing, though I loved the D.C. show more because it was the first one, we were right up at the front, and it was at a much smaller venue. Still, it was an amazing two nights, and in the fall we would find out that seven of the tracks from Ben Folds Live, were from those two shows (4 from NYC, 3 from D.C.).

I saw him again in Washington, D.C., at the Warner Theatre in October 2002. Then again that January back in New York, at the Beacon Theatre. By this time, I was losing interest. I was tired of hearing the same songs. I was tired of hearing “Song For the Dumped” being played in a minor key. But mainly I was tired of seeing Ben without a band.

I decided to take a break.

I made a conscious decision to actively stop listening to Ben Folds, and rarely put on Ben Folds Five. I also decided to not see him live until he put out new material or toured with a band again. (It didn’t help that he was touring with Tori Amos, who I had no urge to see).

He put out an EP with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller, under the name of The Bens, and they toured a couple of nights in Australia. Then it was announced that Ben was going to be releasing three EPs. The first one, Speed Graphic, came out in July. The second EP, Sunny 16, came out that September. Then Ben got sick, and postponed the release of the third EP (Super D), which came out almost a year later. I bought all of them, and enjoyed them.

International Orange

It was a good solid year before I came back around. I guess the time off was good for my fanaticism, because when it was announced that he was going to be touring with Guster and Rufus Wainwright in the summer of 2004, I got excited. I ended up going to four of the shows on that tour. I also ended up seeing Robert Sledge’s (the bassist of BF5) new project, International Orange, that summer. The band also included the guitarist from Ben’s touring band for the Rockin’ the Suburbs tour, Snüzz. Needless to say, the relationship was back, and possibly stronger than at any other point.

The next year was filled with awesomeness. There was the William Shatner album, then the Dickinson College show, the rerelease of Whatever and Ever Amen (with bonus tracks), the release of Songs for Silverman and Songs for Goldfish (which included five tracks from the aforementioned Dickinson show, where I can be heard yelling stuff to him along with my ex-girlfriend), the 9:30 Club show, and the show at the Borgata Casino (which is a story unto itself).

At this point it was late August 2005. I was 22 and was really not sure where I was going in life. I decided to break up with my college girlfriend, and after I said goodbye to her, I popped in The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. It was painful but cathartic at the same time. The songs about leaving and changing hit home, especially “Don’t Change Your Plans” and “Regrets.”

But nothing was close to the emotion of listening to “Lullabye.” That song had a personal meaning. It was my AIM away message every night I was with my (now ex-)girlfriend. That’s almost two years of the same away message. It was also played at the 9:30 Club show we went to together, after I yelled it out for him to play. It was the first time I truly made a connection to a song, and it only made my relationship with Ben’s music stronger.

July 5, 2005 @ Starland Ballroom, Sayreville, NJ

For the next three years, however, I was a somewhat passive fan, just as Ben was becoming bigger. I saw him several times, including a performance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2006. However, there was something lacking. I wasn’t as excited or enthused. I didn’t see him at all in 2007, the first calendar year since 2000 that that happened.

Yet I was still an advocate for his music, especially the Ben Folds Five albums. If anything I became a stronger advocate for them because the newer, younger fans were not as privy to them. They were also annoying at shows, especially when they called out incessantly for “Rock This Bitch” or “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” while I was hoping for “Missing the War” or “Kate.”

I was still hoping for the improbable. Two of my other favorite bands, The Black Crowes and Toad the Wet Sprocket, both broke up for five years and then came back together. Yet, Ben Folds Five were still broken up, and Ben seemed to moving farther and farther from wanting to reunite.

But then it happened.

Almost out of nowhere there were rumors flying on BenFolds.org (where I was now more of a lurker) that they were going to get back together for one show. Then there was the official announcement.

On September 18, 2008, Ben Folds Five was going to play a one off show in Chapel Hill, NC, (where they formed). The timing was odd because it was only a few days before the release date of Ben’s next solo album, Way to Normal. But it didn’t matter. I needed to get to that show.

It didn’t matter that I was going to be starting a new teaching job 3 days before the show, or that the show was 6 hours from where I was going to be living, or that it was on a Thursday. I HAD to go.

The only problem was getting tickets.

The venue only held a few thousand people, and a certain allotment was going to go to University of North Carolina students (since the venue was on the campus), and fans from around the world were going to try and get tickets. Tickets were gone in almost an instant. Or so it seemed. I gave up after about 10 minutes, but my friend, John, did not.

He got two tickets. Third row, stage right.

I freaked out. I couldn’t believe it.

From the Ben Folds Five reunion show

The day of the show, I left school a little early, and drove the 6 hours to Chapel Hill and met John (he flew down from NYC). We were giddy. The show was amazing. It wasn’t the same as it was back in 1999, but it felt better than most of Ben’s solo shows. I still can’t believe it happened (and can’t believe I made it to work the next day; thanks, John, for driving back). I was satisfied.

I saw Ben’s show in D.C. the following Wednesday, a day after Way to Normal was released. It was a bizarre show. Not only did the venue (D.A.R. Constitution Hall) had horrible acoustics, but it was the first night of the tour which included a light and video show, and the set list was filled with brand new songs that almost no one in the crowd was familiar with (though there were a few of us who were familiar with the “fake” versions of the new songs since they were leaked that summer). It didn’t help that I was still on a high from the reunion show, or that I wasn’t really into most of the new material.

I decided to take another break from seeing Ben live. I just wasn’t that into it anymore, and realized I needed to space before the next show, which wasn’t until April 2010.

Over the next 2.5 years, he released three albums. The first, Stems and Seeds, was basically a repackaging of Way to Normal, which included all of the “fake” versions and bonus disc that had GarageBand tracks of all of the songs on the original album, allowing fans to remix the songs (I did 7 remixes). The second was a collection of college a capella groups doing their version of his songs (including Ben Folds Five material). I didn’t buy that; I had no interest. The third, Lonely Avenue, was a collaboration with author Nick Hornby, that I felt was better than most of his more recent solo material. (There are a bunch of events/recordings that I’m skipping, mainly because they are not important to me.)

There was a noticeable lull in this relationship. I would get excited for new material, but be more or less unimpressed. I came to terms with this and have tried to look at each recording as its own entity, not judging it against previous work. It’s helped me appreciate everything that’s been released, and made me realize how strong this connection to the music really is.

Then earlier this year, Ben tweeted a few things that sparked my interest. The first was that he was going through old tapes for a retrospective album. Then came the photo of Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge sitting together in a booth at a restaurant, with a caption saying they were taking a break from working on new tracks.

I was stunned. They were back together (well sort of). They recorded a few tracks for the aforementioned retrospective. Once again, I was excited. Then a few weeks before the release of the album, Ben started doing interviews, and mentioned that they were planning on writing and recording a new album. I flipped out. Would there be a whole new album by Ben Folds Five, with a tour to follow? Knowing that what is said is not always what is done, there is a chance that it never happens, but I am hopeful. I will just have to wait and see what unfolds (no pun intended).

Which brings us to the present. It’s been about a month since The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective was released, as well as the 56 tracks from the Fifty-Five Vault, and it’s made me think about my life with the music of Ben Folds. I’ve realized that this connection is real, and that his music has been, and will continue to be, a major part of my life. Just like a true friendship, there will be highs and lows, excitement and lulls, but the bond will always be there. Like any personal relationship, I’ve been introduced to some of his musical friends over the years (The Semantics, Owsley, Snüzz, Ben Lee, Ben Kweller, just to name few). There’s a meaningful history, and even if it’s been a long time between interactions, the moment there is, you fall back into place, almost as if nothing happened.

I’ve met Ben many times, but he has no clue who I am. I’m just a fan. But that doesn’t matter, because the connection is not with him. It’s with his music, and it’s special. He’ll probably never read this, but if he does, I just want to say:

You’ve done your job as an artist, and I thank you for that.


6 thoughts on “A Personal History with the Music of Ben Folds

  1. Pingback: Bleu – Besides | The All New Cheap Music Blog

  2. Pingback: Ben Folds – The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective | The All New Cheap Music Blog

  3. Pingback: Concert Review: Ben Folds Five @ Central Park Summertage, Manhattan, NY – September 14, 2012 | The All New Cheap Music Blog

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  5. Pingback: Concert Review: Beck @ Prospect Park Bandshell, Brooklyn, NY – August 4, 2013 | The All New Cheap Music Blog

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