Ben Folds Five Makes the Past Come Alive at the Warfield, 1/31/13
Ben Folds Five
Ben Folds Five at the Warfield last night. All photos by the author.
Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013
Better than: Seeing Deep Blue Something reunite in 2013 ("Breakfast at Tiffany's" for life!)
Telling people you're headed to a concert is hip; it carries underlying messages about being active and keeping up on popular culture. But when pressed for "what show?" and the response is Ben Folds? The reaction is fairly predictable, typically falling into one of two categories:
"Oh, I love him!"
"Oh... what year it? 1998?"
Who knows when Ben Folds somehow slipped into territory occupied by the Dave Matthews and Eddie Vedder-types -- an utterly beloved musician known for delivering live, but someone who is dismissed as simply "past" by too many. But if this most recent tour, with its reunited Ben Folds Five lineup, demonstrates anything about that second mindset, well, to quote "Song for The Dumped": "Fuck you, too."
Folds and his trio had a packed Warfield moving and screaming along to every word throughout a nearly two-hour set last night. And while he did sneak seven songs off the band's most recent album (The Sound of The Life of The Mind) into the set, plus one tune from a solo record ("Landed"), the night rewarded everyone who appreciated those three classic BFF releases (whether or not you'll admit it today).
Around halfway in, Folds succinctly introduced "Song for the Dumped" -- "This is some old shit" -- and played only three songs written this decade throughout the rest of the evening. This performance was about taking fans back to the albums that made many fall in love with Folds. After all, those are the ones that allowed him to play an evening like this. (There was so much audience demand that it was simulcast around the world.)
It's easy to understand the desire to remain culturally relevant and stay up on the latest sounds, but you're doing yourself a disservice to dismiss someone like Folds. The band sounded as if it was straight off Whatever And Ever Amen. Not that musicianship wasn't at a high level during any of the Ben Folds solo tours, but the material associated with BFF simply shows off a greater range -- waltzes, standard 4/4 jazz, ballads all in addition to his unique blend of piano pop, punk, and rock. Save for a few harmonies initially giving pause ("Missing The War" noticeably improved throughout), the evening was a beautifully accurate revisit for some fond music memories, right down to the drum fills in "Selfless, Cold and Composed" or the bass licks in "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces."
And in many ways, it felt like a classic "Unplugged" evening some of Folds' peers would've played back in the '90s. The lights were kept on through the performance for some combination of audience interaction, lighting for the band's live stream and "wanting America to see your beautiful faces like I do." Folds mustered up a few of his classic live interactive routines, conducting the audience to sing backup vocals during "Army" or pulling a John Cage and allowing audience noise to take center stage for several minutes before jumping into "Do It Anyway." In vintage "Unplugged" fashion, he also offered insight into the backstory on some of the band's most famous songs. "Alice Childress" isn't about the playwright, but rather his deceased cat of 15 years, which would wake up Folds by spilling water on his face from a cup on the nightstand. "Army" has its roots in truth, too: it was written after Folds failed a performance test while studying music at the University of Miami, threw his drumset into a lake, then returned home to North Carolina for some soul searching.
Sure, only die-hard Folds fans may know the lyrics to new tunes like "Erase Me." And you can pick out a recent track from an old one easily (not sure "Draw A Crowd," with the band's proclaimed record number of "Dicks" in the lyrics, would have made it onto those first three albums). But when Folds jumps into those first few passages of "Brick" and a packed house is muttering the lyrics to themselves -- somehow still feeling personal despite an entire room being in unison -- it's easy to remember why these guys were (and for many still are) an important musical favorite. Ben Folds Five still has it, you just need to be comfortable enough to admit this and pick up a ticket.
It really was 1998: Before "Missing The War" from Folds: "Believe we last played The Warfield in late '98."
Still punk: Folds still carries with him some of that angsty, anti-establishment mindset that characterized many of his early lyrics. For instance, when singing "Army" on this night he replaced the track's Chik-Fil-A reference with "Anti-Gay." Before his Cage-esque experiment pre-"Do It Anyway," Folds mentioned how fortunate he was to have performed with symphonies and orchestras, then stressed that everyone needs to take ownership of fine arts today in order to save them.
A new Dawn: Opening up the evening was local musician Nataly Dawn--better known as half of Internet darlings Pomplamoose. If you despise that group's quasi-twee, car-jingle worthy brand of pop... Nataly Dawn is really going to surprise you with her solo record. Dawn performed only songs from her upcoming LP, How I Knew Her, due out on Feb. 12 (Okay, she also snuck in a "Happy Birthday" crowd sing-a-long to a friend named John).
Dawn's solo stuff carries a modern twang influence that has been permeating some major LPs in the last few years (think Father John Misty or Craig Finn's solo effort). It was very prominent on tunes like "Araceli," complete with some laid-back bass oomph and banjo picking. But on songs like "Even Steven" we got a newly aggressive Dawn spewing vengeance at a man through her lyrics as electric guitars (really) cut through the accompaniment with some very un-Pomplamoose riffs. It'll be really interesting to see how her other band's following takes to this record, but it seems strong enough to get a warm reception.
Ben Folds Five setlist
1. Michael Praytor Five Years Later
2. Jackson Cannery
3. Hold That Thought
4. Selfless, Cold and Composed
5. Erase me
7. Sky High
8. Missing The War
9. Battle of Who Could Care Less
10. Draw A Crowd
11. Thank You For Breaking My Heart
15. Do It Anyway
16. Alice Childress
18. Song for Dumped
20. One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces