Ben Folds Five
with Fleming and John
LaFrak Gymnasium, Amherst College, Amherst, MA • April 17, 1999
Ben Folds Five’s new album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner , presents us with a new and somewhat untapped side of the band. The album is much more mellow and emotional, and very rarely do the rock standards they uphold on their first three efforts ever rear their heads. Therefore, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was going to be the same band live as they had been in years prior, or if their shows were going to turn into a tear-jerking festival. Of course, I see nothing wrong with that, as I love their slower songs almost more then their loud ones, but who can resist a little rock?
Before we got to see our Chapel Hill heroes, the 1,000 plus crowd had to endure Fleming and John, which I think my friend Nadia summed up best when she proclaimed after their first song, “What the HELL?!” This quintet is plenty to look at, but unfortunately not much to hear. Introducing themselves by John, half the band’s namesake, walking up to the microphone and saying, “Please welcome to the stage… me!” this group easily takes the title of strangest thing I’ve ever seen. Their guitarist dressed like a pimped-out version of Elvis flaunted a flying-V guitar, while their vocalist, Fleming, looked and dressed like somewhat of a cross between a mermaid and a tortured drag queen. Their drummer was a hardcore animal wearing a kilt, their keyboardist looked like she was about to fall asleep, and their bassist stood off to the side and could have been confused with one of the roadies.
What they had to show for themselves, besides the freak-show montage, wasn’t all that much, as their songs were some kind of weird rock-noise hybrid accompanied by Fleming’s piercing and sometimes opera-esque vocals. Various instruments would be pulled out to accompany their songs on occasion, be it a rainstick, a toy laser-gun, a metal tray, or a non-slide trombone. For one song, Fleming brought out pom-poms to do some interpretive dancing. Nobody seemed too into them (sans a few kids up in front), but they did get a big rise out of the crowd when they announced that one of their songs was co-written by Ben Folds. That, of course, and when it was time for them to depart the stage. I can’t say that the novelty of watching this band wore off in the 35 minutes they played, but I doubt they’d be anything I’d care to listen to again.
Finally, after the hordes of props and microphones were cleared in Fleming and John’s wake, the lights dropped out and Ben Folds Five were greeted by deafening screams from the audience. Taking a slight bow and waving to the masses, they situated themselves and went into a new tune, “Don’t Change Your Plans,” accompanied by John (from the previous band) on fluegelhorn. There are a couple different things to note about this tour than the previous times these three guys have made their way through. For one, Ben now sits between two pianos, a baby grand and an upright, using each interchangeably for the appropriate sound and song. And for two, bassist Robert Sledge is situated with a keyboard as well, displaying his skills on a good portion of the new tunes.
But all differences aside, this is still the same rocking, poppy, loud, and fun band that we knew and loved from their earlier days. Pleasing the crowd with older tunes like “Underground” and “Battle of Who Could Care Less,” their improvisational skills still stand strong as the boys made up a thirty-second song in the middle of “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” only to have Ben speak, unaccompanied, half the second verse. The new stuff was incredibly impressive as well, even bringing a girl standing next to me to tears by the end of “Magic.” (I kid you not!) Unfortunately, not too much off their self-titled was performed, and no B-sides were pulled out either. However, whatever they did do was superb, as there wasn’t a foul note in the almost two hours they played. Not to mention, they pleased me greatly by omitting their last ‘hit’ single, “Brick.”
Their encore included the most insane rock-n-roll ending I’ve ever seen, ending with “Song For the Dumped,” their usual closer, while Ben ran around like a madman, tripping over wires, screaming, throwing microphones, and creating all-around chaos. Both bass and drums got shots at solos, and Ben told everyone a moving tale of woe as he relayed the day’s sorrowful events. “First, I had to wake up on the bus.” “Aww,” cries the crowd. “Then, I was thirsty, and I had to ask our tour manager for a bottle of water. You don’t know what it’s like to be me!” “Aww,” the crowd repeats.
I had my doubts about what this show would be like, but all of them were quickly squelched. Ben Folds Five simply rocks, even when they’re not rocking. Period.