I have never, in my life, paid more than $70 to see a concert, and that’s including the extra fees. But I paid $125 to see Ben Folds Five last night in Central Park, and it was worth every single penny.
Now, before I get into the review of the show, let me explain the ticket cost. My $125 ticket granted me early access to the venue and a shirt that was unique to the show. So really, if you break it down, the regular tickets cost about $60 before fees, throw in a shirt that would probably be $15-20, and then add the fact you get in before everyone else, which allowed me to be, literally, front and center to see my favorite band of all time, and the price really isn’t that bad.
Now this was not the first time I had seen Ben Folds Five. As some of you may recall from my entry, A Personal History with the Music of Ben Folds, I have seen the band three times prior to last night’s show, twice before their breakup, as well as their first, one-off reunion show in 2008, but that did not hamper my excitement to see them. They are, as I just mentioned, my favorite band, and as much as I wanted to love Ben Folds’ other bands as much as I love him playing with Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee, it just was never the same. Thankfully, the show last night was everything I hoped for (besides a two-hour set) and any worry about them not being as good as they were back in the 90s was totally put to rest.
The show started incredibly early, with the opening act, Kate Miller-Hiedke, going on at 6pm and leaving the stage just after 6:30. Being that this was an outdoor show in the middle of Manhattan, I was not that surprised that it started early (the My Morning Jacket show in Williamsburg started at 6:15, with the band going on at 7:30). I was more shocked at how quickly Ben Folds Five came on after. At 7:03, the guys came on stage and started their 100-minute show.
They opened with “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later,” my favorite song off their new album, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind. This song has everything you want to hear from Ben Folds Five, fuzz bass, gorgeous harmonies, pounding piano and drums, and from the very start the band sounded great. There was a moment, however, when everything could’ve fallen apart during the song. At the end of the second chorus, Folds messed up and accidentally kept going like it was the third chorus, but luckily Robert Sledge kept playing the right part, and Folds soon recovered, giving Darren Jessee a look that said, “Well, I messed that up,” which was returned with a smile by the drummer. That moment told me that these three men who, over the last 12 years, had only played a handful of shows together, were back on the same page, and were truly a band, once again, even if mistakes were made.
After “Michael Praytor,” the band went straight into “Theme from Dr. Pyser,” a ferocious instrumental B-Side from the 90s, which was followed by two BF5 classics, “Jackson Cannery” and “Selfless, Cold and Composed.” All three of these older songs sounded fantastic, with the band sounding like they had never broken up to begin with. “Selfless, Cold and Composed,” was especially amazing, if only for the fact that Jessee’s drumming was just plain stellar. On the song he plays an incredibly intricate and concise jazz waltz beat, which really makes the song, and he pulled it off perfectly. It should be noted that Jessee had not been playing a lot of drums during the breakup of Ben Folds Five, so for his drumming to be as good as it was last night was just an absolute treat.
“Erase Me,” the opening track of the new album, was next, and was followed by the classic “Uncle Walter,” which is easily one of the band’s best live songs. The band then went into a fantastic version of “Alice Childress,” and then “Sky High,” another song from their new album, which sounded absolutely stunning. The band continued to play a mix of new an old material, performing “Battle of Who Could Care Less,” “Mess,” The Sound of the Life of the Mind,” “Emaline,” and “Do It Anyway,” all of which sounded superb. However, the background vocal harmonies on “The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind,” really stood out, and were actually mind blowing. Sledge and Jessee’s vocals were so perfect, that I honestly could not tell if they were coming from their mouths or a recording. It was another moment during the show that reinforced why I love this band so much.
The band closed the set with four of their stalwarts, “Brick,” “Philosophy,” “Army,” and “Song For The Dumped.” Even though I had seen them three times prior, I had happily never heard them perform “Brick” live (I was never a big fan of the song), but I must admit that the band’s biggest song sounded truly wonderful last night. “Philosophy” got the crowd into a frenzy, sounding, unsurprisingly, great, with the highlight being the extended jazzy solo from Folds, which was amply backed by Sledge and Jessee. “Army” put the crowd on another level, and even though it was usually Sledge and Jessee doing the horn parts in days past, the band allowed the crowd, who needed no cue or direction from the band, to sing the parts instead. The guys were silent as we went through the horn section about three times before being joined by the band. It was truly a wonderful moment.
And then there was “Song For The Dumped.” For anyone who was ever lucky enough to see Ben Folds Five in concert back in the 90s, knows that this was always the show closer, and the time when the band would go absolutely crazy on stage. Well, due to a mistake made by Folds, the song lived up to its legacy and turned out to be the best song of the night. Overall, the song sounded amazing (I mean you had Robert Sledge’s patented fuzz bass back in action, how could it not be amazing?), but it was the built-in jam, that almost wasn’t, that truly made the song. After the third verse, the band would almost always go into a jam led by Sledge, who would unplug his bass, and start tapping the live cable on his hand, producing a sound every time there was contact. Well, Folds forgot about it (for some reason) and he went straight into the last chorus. Sledge interjected during a pause in the lyrics, saying, “Not tonight, I guess” (or something similar, I don’t remember exactly). Folds realized his mistake, cut himself off, and told Sledge to start it up, which he eventually did. Later, Folds start to sing that he was sorry, and Sledge soon joined in, singing that it was okay, before saying he probably should get another bass solo, which happened soon after. The jam that followed was different than the typical “Dumped” jam, and eventually led into a rendition of “Weather Channel Music,” a jazzy improvised jam that Folds was prone to doing at his solo shows, before getting back to the song and finishing the set to a thunderous applause.
Now you may be wondering why the hell I just detailed what happened in a part of a song. The reason is that this was the moment that I knew that Ben Folds Five was truly back together. The band could’ve played a two hour set perfectly, and it still would not have been as important as what happened during last night’s rendition of “Song For The Dumped.” Long before Ben Folds did “Rock This Bitch,” Ben Folds Five would do impromptu songs like “That’s Robert Sledge,” “Satan is My Master,” and “Cybernet.” And though Folds would continue this trend into his solo career, the interaction between him and Robert Sledge that would happen during these made up songs showed that the band had a level of communication and understanding that would allow them to deviate from the written setlist. These were the moments that not only made Ben Folds Five shows special, but made the band, itself, special. So that’s why the jam, that almost wasn’t, in “Song For The Dumped,” was the most important and the best moment of the night last night.
After the band left the stage, the crowd started chanting, “Ben Folds Five! Ben Folds Five!” as they waited for the band to return to the stage. “Underground” was first up, and the crowd went totally crazy as Darren Jessee said, “I was never cool in school. I’m sure you don’t remember me,” to begin a phenomenal rendition of the song. The night closed with the band playing “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces.” While I would have preferred “Song For The Dumped,” the song was a great way to end the show, especially hearing the three of them play through the breakdown of the song. The song kicked ass, and the guys were totally into it. The show officially ended with Folds throwing his piano stool at his piano.
Overall, it was a fantastic night and a truly great show. Not only did the band sound awesome, but they were visibly enjoying themselves, which is an indication that they are definitely happy to be working together again. This was most evident on Darren Jessee’s face, who for most of the night was smiling, something that I did not expect. I say this because at the first reunion show in 2008, he was the most reserved and seemed to be the least into the show. So, even though he has scaled back his stage presence (he was prone to standing up while playing), the fact that he was smiling and laughing meant that he is truly enjoying playing with his bandmates. Honestly, it seems they all are, and it showed last night on stage.
So, let it be known to the world, Ben Folds Five is, indeed, back, and they sound just as good as they ever did. And I, for one, could not be happier about that.
Michael Praytor, Five Years Later – The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind
Theme From Dr. Pyser – B-side of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
Jackson Cannery – Ben Folds Five
Selfless, Cold, and Composed – Whatever and Ever Amen
Erase Me – The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind
Uncle Walter – Ben Folds Five
Alice Childress – Ben Folds Five
Sky High – The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind
Battle of Who Could Care Less – Whatever and Ever Amen
Mess – The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
The Sound of the Life of the Mind – The Sound of the Life of the Mind
Emaline – Naked Baby Photos
Do It Anyway – The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind
Brick – Whatever and Ever Amen
Philosophy – Ben Folds Five
Army – The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
Song For The Dumped – Whatever and Ever Amen
Underground – Ben Folds Five
One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces – Whatever and Ever Amen