On Ben Folds Five

Remember Them?

“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
Jackson Cannery
Selfless, Cold & Composed
Erase Me
Alice Childress
Sky High
Draw a Crowd
Landed
Battle of Who Could Care Less
Uncle Walter
Brick
Do It Anyway
Philosophy
Tom & Mary
Narcolepsy
Kate
Army
———–
Song for the Dumped
Underground

SWC

I first heard of the Songwriter’s Cafe when I was 15 . At the time, I was devouring Ocean Colour Scene records, and in particular their more acoustic b-sides, and discovering through those quieter moments, and via interviews with the folky frontman of that Britpop behemoth, the stripped-down delights of  Harry Smith’s Anthology and Bob Dylan. In fact, I still remember coming across that first copy – vinyl, mind – of Smith’s compendium, in the wilds of Brum’s Virgin Megastore that was; its four discs were, alas, beyond my pocket-moneyed funds, but the packaging whispered all sorts of untellable tales.

Even without knowing about all the many other wonderful songwriters then plying their trade in Birmingham’s bars – from Mickey Greaney to Daniel Rachel – the Songwriter’s Cafe had for me a similar aura as that hallowed boxset: I discovered, by tracking down every mention of Simon Fowler’s movements, that he was a regular at an event held on a Sunday afternoon in the Factotum and Firkin pub in Birmingham city centre. Shyly, I wanted to go – even more shyly, when I read (whether true or no) that the venue was over-18s only, I gave up all hope. When I finally turned 18, the Factotum (it’s now The Sun on the Hill) had shut its doors – and so had the Songwriter’s Cafe.

This story is told much better, and characteristically rather more colourfully, by the SWC’s ringmaster, Paul Murphy, in Radio To Go’s recent documentary on the Cafe. Recent because Paul decided a few years ago to relaunch the event at a secret location in the Birmingham suburbs. 15 years or so after first hearing about it, then, I was finally able not just to attend but to play this hallowed Brum institution. The evening lived up to every possible expectation – intimate and encouraging, and serious about songwriting without being precious, its small silent audience and hand-picked roster of musicians makes for a quite unique experience. It is lovely.

Next Thursday is the 2012 season’s final outing – good news for Paul’s incipient aubergine allergy – and you really should tune in to listen. The line-up is always kept under wraps, but it’s not about who’s playing: it’s about the exchange that happens when they do. It’s special, and thanks go out to Paul, Valeria and everyone at SWC for inviting me to play – but most importantly for making the whole thing happen 13 weeks a year.

Mark your diaries for 2013.

 

Memorable “Heart”

Regular readers will recall my fondness for – nay, my championing of – “Forgetful Heart”, from Bob Dylan’s latest album, Together Through Life. Critics aside, “Forgetful Heart”, along with a handful of other songs from that album, shows without doubt that Dylan is still an engaged and engaging songwriter.

Hat-tip to Gardener is Gone, then, for pointing out that Dylan performed this song live for the first time on the first of this month.

On the Expecting Rain forums, Nappy suggests that “I can firmly say after hearing “Forgetful Heart”, that Dylan still has it.” That seems fairly to cover it: this version is sublime – menacing, regretful and serpentine – and one of which any live artist could be proud. Think he’s over the hill? Think he’s passed his prime? Get your head looked at.

Join The Union While You May

Manton Colliery, 1984

Manton Colliery, 1984

Just a quick one!

We were out on the live music circuit last night, and really enjoyed a version of ‘Black Leg Miner’ played by Shaggy, from local band Flat Stanley. It’s a shame we didn’t think to talk about it last month – it’s a great song, and of course is about the miners’ strike itself. Famously, its perspective is that of the ‘scab’, and it probably gets to the heart of the bitterness of the strike all the better for it.

You can watch a video of the Steeleye Span version of the song here. The pictures aren’t exactly of the right period, but you get the gist! The good ol’ pub is still the best place to catch the best – and most unexpected – of English music (folk and otherwise), we think. Get down to your local and support the live stuff.