Ben Folds Five are an oddity. And I’m not talking about the fact that there are only three of them. Their curious brand of witty, literate piano pop doesn’t exist anywhere else outside of Ben Folds‘ head – it’s an anomaly, a weird curio that hearkens back to simpler times.
Thankfully, it’s also incredibly catchy, and undeniably popular. Their show at Seattle’s Showbox at the Market is sold out weeks in advance, and people are lining up outside the venue on Monday February 4th to get inside. It’s gray, and raining, and a little cold. But there’s a buzz of excitement before we even make it through the doors. Ben Folds Five split in 2000, and while Folds has released multiple solo albums since then, there was never this aura of anticipation at his shows. I’m going to go ahead and say it: there isn’t a single song that Folds released during his solo career which lives up to the rest of the band’s output. Sometimes, when the chemistry is right, playing music relies on a little magic.
The magic is certainly still there. Their set opens with ‘Michael Praytor, Five Years Later’ from latest album The Sound of the Life of the Mind, and you can almost feel the chemistry fizzing in the air. Folds’ piano playing has always been like a wilder, trippier Elton John, and the rest of the band display their full range of idiosyncrasies: Robert Sledge struts with his bass as if he’s playing lead guitar, while Darren Jessee strokes the drumkit with an unlikely fusion of rock and freeform jazz. If you took these elements in isolation you’d say that Ben Folds Five should never work – but work they do, and the crowd is quick to appreciate it. They’re a little bold, a little rough around the edges, but never anything less than entertaining.
Most of the night’s highlights still come from the older tunes, which is to be expected. The new album feels like a return to form, but it will take a while for these songs to seep into our cultural consciousness. What’s most obvious is that many of their strongest moments come from Folds’ most confessional songs. It’s hard to think of a modern singer-songwriter who has invested himself more fully in his music, and Folds has always used his personal life as raw material for his art. ‘Landed’, ‘Missing the War’ – and, of course, ‘Brick’ – all feel imbued with emotion, and the hush that falls over the crowd during the quieter moments is an indication of the respect they have for Folds’ painful honesty.
It’s in the nature of all great live shows that they end too soon, and the Ben Folds Five show in Seattle is no exception. If they’d kept playing into the small hours of the morning no one would have complained. But for a cold, gray Monday night in the Northwest, this was both a treat and a wake-up call. Ben Folds Five are definitely back – let’s hope it’s for good this time.