Ben Folds Five – Live (2013)
Like many fans, worldwide, I was extremely excited to learn that Ben Folds Five had reformed and were working on a new album, “The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind”, which came out last year. It was really quite good too, managing to be both the weakest studio album that Ben Folds Five have released so far and also largely excellent, which tells you a lot about the quality of their previous releases. It was the icing on the cake to learn that they were going to tour as well, as this particular fan missed out on seeing Ben Folds Five live the first time around. I’d seen Ben solo quite a few times, but never the original band, so the prospect of this was something quite special. Unfortunately, when it came to the gig, at Brixton Academy on the 4th December, 2012, they packed the people in so tight that night that it was almost impossible to enjoy the evening (I hate to think what would have happened if there had been an emergency) and I spent most of the night at the bar at the back of the venue enjoying the music without actually being able to see the stage. I was, therefore, happy to hear that there was going to be a live album release, so I could re-live the live show in more comfortable surroundings.
There are four songs from the new album on this fifteen track live CD and, unfortunately, apart from the lamentable “One Chord Blues/Billie’s Bounce” (there’s always a similar number at a Folds gig), they tend to be the weakest link here. “Erase Me” is a great track but loses a little power live, with the constant falsetto Ben adopts grating a little near the end, “Sky High” is pleasant enough but ultimately forgettable, “Do It Anyway” is a little underwhelming, but, thankfully, the rendition of “Draw A Crowd”, complete with false start, works brilliantly. Perhaps predictably it is the older material which sets the audience on fire and, certainly, was what they were there to hear. Early favourites, “Jackson Cannery”, “Uncle Walter”, “Underground” are all played and received enthusiastically, are are the sublime “Selfless, Cold and Composed”, the poignant, powerful “Narcolepsy” (resplendent with jazzy piano solo at the climax) and fan favourite from their “Naked Baby Photos” rarities album, the thoroughly likeable rocker, “Tom and Mary”.
Perhaps the biggest shame is that Ben Folds’ post-Five solo career is largely ignored here, with the magnificent “Landed” the only non-Five song that gets an airing. I reluctantly admit that it makes sense that solo material wouldn’t be performed on a reunion tour, but it’s not as if Ben Folds Five are a group where each member makes an equal contribution to the songwriting. It’s not quite a one man show, but let’s face it, he really is the talent and avoiding a large part of his catalogue meant that the show was perhaps not quite as good as it could have been. Still, with beautiful classics such as “Brick” and the two “Whatever and Ever Amen” rockers, the frenetic “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” and “Song For The Dumped” on the set-list, it’s not as if the fans have been short changed. They’re a fantastic band, for sure, and had it been a top-notch, classic album they’d been promoting on this tour, this could have been an excellent live album. As it is, it’s merely very good. I’d imagine that this album is a must for anybody who saw them on this tour and also for anyone who wanted to go and missed out. Can it compare with live performances such as Ben Folds with WASO or the West 54th Sessions? Not really, but it’s still a great live record and, if you’re a fan, you’ll definitely want to have it.