Concert Review: Ben Folds Five

Hello from Washington, D.C., where I’m still running on fumes after a 3 A.M. wakeup.  I’m in town for a couple of Nationals games – both of which are now happening tomorrow after a rainout today.  Nothing says “welcome to town” like flash flood and tornado warnings!

This is only my second trip to D.C., and I’ve been impressed so far.  There are some thoughts rattling around in my brain about comparing D.C. and New York that may serve for a future blog post.  In fact, I’m staying just across the street from the National Cathedral, and it’s an awe-inspiring sight…it reminded me just what the sense of wonder can be like when seeing something new.  I’ve been jaded by living near New York City to the point where it doesn’t much do anything for me any more – but just staring up at the Cathedral was an incredible experience.

But that’s all a story for another day.  For now, we transport back to Friday night in Central Park…

(Editor’s Note: That was written yesterday.  I’m now back in New York.  I don’t feel like changing it.)

Deal with the laziness, folks.


Kevin trivia question: what do O.A.R., Taking Back Sunday, Green Day, Ben Folds and – in one month – Rush have in common?

Answer: They’re all the artists I’ve seen twice in concert!  (And yes, I was in high school once.)

I saw Folds play at Syracuse University a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the show.  So when the chance to see him play again came up with a Central Park concert last Friday night, I took it.  The show was fantastic – I won’t bury the lead there.  But let’s discuss more than just the music, shall we?  Time to break it down…

Venue: Rumsey Playfield at Central Park

The word “playfield” implies, at the very least, a field, right?  Well, Rumsey Playfield is actually a small venue with a green carpet of sorts on top of cement.  It’s not terribly uncomfortable – in fact, I stood the whole time during the show, so it didn’t really matter – but I almost felt cheated because of the name.  The “Playfield” itself, though, was a fun venue for a show.  It’s small enough to feel exclusive, but the energy was great of the first moment.  You don’t have a ton of space to move, but you’re not packed in like sardines, either.  It always helps to have a guy who looks like Clay Matthews as a sound guy, too.

He will eat you.

Grade: B+

Opening Act: Kate Miller-Heidke

To answer your question, I don’t know, either.  But boy, was she surprisingly fantastic!  (Seriously.  That’s not a jokey faux-excitement exclamation point.)  Kate (I’m not typing out her last name, though I just wasted more text in typing this long explanation) is an Australian singer who is classically trained in opera, and she tours with an acoustic guitarist named Keir Nuttall.  It took a little while to realize what exactly was happening here – I’ve never seen an Australian singer-songwriter touring with a random guitarist before – but one song in, it became apparent that was would be fun.  The duo had distinct senses of humor in between songs – Kate bubblier, Keir totally deadpan – and had tunes that sounded distinctly separate.  Two of the eight songs on the opening set stood out more so than others.  The first, “Sarah”, was a haunting story of her friend who went missing one day at a concert before turning up two weeks later with no recollection of the event.  It’s a beautiful ballad that keeps you hanging on edge until the conclusion.

The second, “Are You F***ing Kidding Me”, is a hilarious tune about not wanting to be Facebook friends with someone.  Here are some sample lyrics:

“At times it really felt as though the pain was here to stay
And though it’s many years I go I feel it to this day,
And now you wanna be my friend on Facebook
Are you f***ing kidding me?

…I don’t care what kind of cocktail you are,
Or which member of The Beatles or which 1950s movie star
I don’t give a toss if you’re a ninja or a pirate
I suspect you’d be a pirate, but I don’t wanna verify it”

And the set ended with a vocal opera flourish.  Like I said, surprisingly fantastic!  I’ll be seeing you on Spotify, KMH.

Grade: A


I wouldn’t have anything to say about the crowd here if not for the people standing directly in front of us.  There was a group of kids that must have been between the ages of 16 and 19, though they had beers, so they must have purchased fake IDs from the guy who created McLovin’s.  They decided to the show the world that they were bigger Ben Folds Five fans than anyone else in the world, which resulted in a high volume of constant dancing, drunkenly yelling out lyrics and screaming for “Best Imitation of Myself.”  Thank you, Ben, for not caving in to their inebriated teenage demands.  (Good song, though.)

Mrs. Anderson’s junior-year high school class was matched up with the guy with the flowery shirt in front of us who was stoned out of his mind.  After getting a whiff of some Pineapple Express, this guy didn’t move for the rest of the show.  I thought the guy was going to pass out while standing up, even while he was two feet away from the Energizer Bunny.  The guy even put the wrong password into his phone once when trying to unlock it.

I’m surprised he didn’t try to open the phone like this.

But the low point in the show came right at the start of a Ben Folds Five classic, “Philosophy”.  One of the young’uns in front of us simply fell down and stayed down for a few seconds before getting up and declaring “I’m OK” with a glazed-over look.  She then walked a few steps and went back down to the ground.  I tend to believe this was a result of the underage drinking, though I don’t want to assume.  But it was a bit strange trying to enjoy a great song with a girl falling up and down right next to us.

Grade: D

Ben Folds Five

Ah, the main event.  First off, give Ben, Robert Sledge (bass guitar) and Darren Jesse (drums) major points for timeliness.  After KMH started at 6:00 and finished at 6:35, BF5 came right on at 7:00.  (Yep, it’s abbreviation hour.)  You don’t see that in shows.  Axl Rose would have gone on stage at 7:00 the next morning.

Hopefully wearing this.

Ben Folds Five, first of all, is a trio.  I understand that’s a confusing concept, because in math, five does not equal three.  But there you have it, anyway.  The group, active from 1993 to 2000, disbanded after that as Ben pursued a solo career.  But here they are, together again, with a brand-new album on the way.

And that new album was heavily featured in the group’s set list – in fact, five of the first twelve songs played were from the recently released The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind, which will be referred to from here on out as TSOTLOTM.  That made it hurt to establish too much sing-a-long momentum, but Folds and the gang know how to put on a show.  They’re energetic and lively during and in between all songs, with a smile that rarely lives our front man’s face as he jams away on piano.  And Folds is a musical nerd who loves sharing his knowledge with the audience – whether it’s the difference between major and minor chords or what exactly he’s putting on his piano strings, he keeps it jokingly compelling.

Then, after single Do It Anyway, the band exploded to the finish line with memorable song after memorable song.  Brick.  Philosophy.  Army.  Song For The Dumped.  A quick break before an encore of Underground and One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces, and that was that.  The run to the finish was jam-heavy and probably didn’t need a lead singer – the joyous audience took care of the words.

But perhaps the most memorable moment of the whole show was during Brick – a good song, to be sure, but not the best thing the group’s ever done, though it became their biggest hit.  At least, that’s what I’d always thought.  But hearing the opening piano notes live and then listening and watching as a crowd turned into stone – that was chilling.  Silence told the whole story as a hush came across the theater.  It was gorgeous, elegant music, and everyone there seemed to realize they were in the presence of something special.

(OK, that’s totally cheating, because it’s with an orchestra.  But you get the idea.)

Three songs later, of course, we were bouncily proclaiming a chorus of “give me my money back, give me my money back, you bitch.”  Silly Ben.

Grade: A


One response to “Concert Review: Ben Folds Five

  1. Kevin, Thanks for the info on the opening act Kate Miller-Heidke. Listened to “Sarah” and heard a bit of Suzanne Vega-like vocals that I really enjoyed. Keep the good stuff coming.

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