“We’ve just flown in,” says Ben Folds with the air of an explanation. “Boy, our arms are tired?”
There were two significant things about this moment, which occurred right after Ben Folds Five played on Friday night their first song together on British soil since 1999. The first was that, alas, explanation was needed: the band seemed if not nervous then certainly hesitant, and with Robert Sledge’s monitor not returning any of his famous fuzz bass to his ears, one third of a group the crowd had waited more than a decade to hear live again was flying solo and flustered; rusty and jet-lagged, perhaps the trio’s harmonies weren’t quite as on-point as they might have been 13 years before, when I saw them raise the roof off Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall with a performance honed and tightened to almost inhuman specifications; the sound problems even extended to the microphones, which seemed ill-balanced – Sledge’s nasal harmony drowning out drummer Darren Jesse’s, and Folds’s lead sounding under-powered. There were, unheard of, a few bum notes from the direction of the piano. On drums, the imperturbable Jesse seemed more detached than cool.
But here was the other thing about Folds’s knowingly lame joke: it was like old times.
This run of UK shows, starting in Bristol and ending in Brixton, aren’t the first Ben Folds Five gigs in 13 years – the newly re-formed band have been touring the USA already. But the trio have never hidden the fact that they first felt understood in the UK (most notably saying so in the liner notes of Naked Baby Photos), and there was a palpable air of expectation at the O2 Academy on Friday – not just from the audience, but from the band themselves. The teething troubles didn’t help clear that atmosphere, lending to old favourite ‘Missing The War’, and even new song ‘Hold That Thought’, the sense of a feeling of the way (on the other hand, it must be said that in general the new songs came out far better from this set than they do from their record). When ‘Jackson Cannery’ bubbled out from the stage with something approaching the old energy, everyone may have thought the moment had arrived – but then a fluffy ‘Selfless, Cold and Composed’ reminded the assembled that this was a group of musicians who before this year hadn’t played these songs in a long time – and had just come over on the red-eye.
Ben Folds Five always traded in virtuosic irony – they could mock and undermine the standard poses of rock music, without in turn hobbling themselves, thanks to the sheer strength of their musicianship. The weight of meaning being placed on their shoulders in Bristol, however, asked too much of an overly flip tune like ‘Erase Me’ (the only song from the new album, The Sound of the Life of the Mind, which did not rise in my estimation after this show): the band may have just landed, but their baggage was such that they were finding it hard to take flight.
And thus it was that Ben Folds himself saved the band that bears his name: recapturing the spirit of that joke about tired arms, he began to sing about Colston Avenue Toilet, a local Bristol landmark which has amused him on every trip to the UK … and which he asked the audience to photograph and tweet to @samsmyth. First Sledge then Jesse joined in on the kind of improvisational flight of fancy for which the band was once known – 2012’s answer to ‘For Those of Y’All Who Wear Fanny Packs’, or ‘Satan Is My Master’. Something, finally, shook loose – here was a gig which was meant to be fun.
Their followed a rendition of ‘Draw a Crowd’, a song sunk on the latest record in the weirdly subdued production which characterises the whole LP, but which here became a kind of BF5 anthem; ‘Landed’ was pulled out of the solo catalogue, ‘Battle of Who Could Care Less’ crashed into the room on pitch-perfect percussion; ‘Uncle Walter’ surprised and elated a crowd for whom the song somehow sounded suddenly fresh – and a heckle from the audience led to another improvisation, this one undertaken with far less conscious stagecraft, entitled ‘When Are You Coming To Wales?‘. ‘Brick’, meanwhile, sounded as heartfelt as it ever did (and the audience uniquely respectful of it); ‘Narcolepsy’ featured a freestyle jazz interlude powered by the same irreverent virtuosity of old. By the time the set closed with ‘Army’, Folds no longer had to do any directing – simply by pointing at one side of the audience or other, the required brass parts came eagerly, unbidden and in key.
Anna had never seen the band live – in fact, she’d never knowingly heard a Ben Folds Five song before Friday night. Here’s the measure of a set which ended, perhaps prematurely due to a club night curfew, with – of course – a singalong of ‘Underground’: she danced all night, and listened to the band’s debut LP, first released in 1995, over breakfast the next morning.
You see, once they find it, Ben Folds Five still have it.
Michael Praytor, Five Years Later
Missing the War
Hold That Thought
Selfless, Cold & Composed
Draw a Crowd
Battle of Who Could Care Less
Do It Anyway
Tom & Mary
Song for the Dumped