The Ben Folds Five reunion show on Thursday at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall to play The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner in its entirety had created a huge amount of buzz since its announcement less than a month ago. Students were apparently camped out for days and tickets sold out in three minutes, even with the hefty $50 price tag.
To tell the truth, all that buzz made me wary of getting too excited about this show. I was wary of the crowd (weren’t these college kids in elementary school at the height of Ben Folds Five’s popularity with “Brick”?). I was wary of the set list choice (why Reinhold Messner, of all albums?). I was wary of the expensive price (sure, $10 of every ticket went to charity, but wasn’t that still a little steep?). And, finally, I was wary of a reunion (how would it compare?). So, despite the dear place that Ben Folds Five has in my heart, I went in with reservations.
I hadn’t realized that there would be an opening act, so I was shocked to see Ben Folds Five drummer Darren Jessee, front and center, as I found my seat. I was a little unpleasantly surprised that there was only one other person on stage with him, considering that Hotel Lights‘ albums sound like a full band. While the pair sometimes changed the instrumentation slightly by switching between the use of guitars and a piano, the variety of sound was severely limited by the lack of people to play instruments.
Occasionally, there would be a moment where their sound seemed almost big enough for the venue—but only when both were singing and playing at their loudest. Their albums are beautifully simple, but still very rich—a full, but folksy sound, mostly reminiscent of a sleepy Ryan Adams. Yet, unless one put some real effort into paying attention, their set simply faded into the background, barely heard above the murmur of the crowd. They either needed a more intimate venue or a drummer.
Still, I’m glad I got a chance to see them play, especially with the appropriately sentimental touch of Jessee’s dedication of “Amelia Bright” (one of my favorite Ben Folds Five bootlegs) from his recently released Firecracker People to Ben Folds Five band mates Ben Folds and Robert Sledge. Hopefully, the next time I see them play, it will be under different circumstances.
Ben Folds Five’s entrance was met by a deafening roar (I was literally concerned for my aural health), so, contrary my concerns about the college crowd—the place was obviously packed with some real fans. I must admit that I was a little confused and disappointed by the decision to play The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, and even Folds himself stated “If I’d known about this gig ten years ago, I would have sequenced the album a little different.”
This show made me remember the tracks that I loved, and I even fell in love with some of my least favorite tracks. I was personally not a huge fan of Reinhold Messner, simply because it seemed overproduced and overblown to me—trying a bit too hard to make emotional impact, while still coming up short. Live, the songs were stripped down just enough to let them really shine. There were some instruments brought in beyond the basic piano/drums/bass format of Ben Folds Five, including a glorious timpani for “Magic” and an occasional horn section (seemingly of UNC students), but the extras were used sparingly, to my delight.
Answering the questions of many about how “Your Most Valuable Possession” would be performed, there was a guest appearance by Folds’ dad to read a transcript of his own early morning answering machine ramblings. Songs from the album that had previously seemed awkward and a drag on the pace of the record were brought up to speed and even made beautiful. Songs that had a decent amount of energy on the album really popped live, helped by Sledge’s energetic and entertaining performance. There were a couple moments where the band showed their rustiness—some harmonies that were just slightly off and some forgotten lyrics—but otherwise, I never would have known that this was a reunion show.
After a very clean set with very little banter and a noticeable lack of expletives, the band came back for a more relaxed encore. Folds opened by explaining that “Army” had been “the beginning of the end of the commercial success of Reinhold Messner.” Though the main set was beautifully done, the encore was all about having fun (oh, yeah, and the cussing was back too). Old favorites featured on their first self-titled album and Naked Baby Photos made an appearance, as well as songs from Whatever and Ever Amen. Plus, Folds’ anecdotes of the band’s former Chapel Hill life played well with the hometown crowd.
Remember that almost deafening roar I mentioned from the crowd at the beginning of the show? Well, this was a crowd to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, the band did not rise to the challenge of a second encore, despite an impressive chant from the crowd. Can I say “party foul” in this situation? Eh, maybe I just really wanted that second encore myself. I guess I can’t be too disgruntled, though, since the encore was almost a full-length show in itself.
The show was fantastic, my wariness was dispelled, and it made me remember exactly why I once considered Ben Folds Five as one of my favorite bands. Quoth Lavar Burton, “but you don’t have to take my word for it,” because the show will be posted in October at http://www.myspace.com/fronttoback.
Don’t Change Your Plans
Your Redneck Past
Your Most Valuable Possession
Selfless, Cold and Composed
Battle of Who Could Care Less
Where’s Summer B.?
Song for the Dumped
Written by: Special Correspondent Erin K. Staton
Photos: Emily Shur