Ben Folds Five are twelve years older since their last tour, but the trio didn’t miss a beat on Sunday night at the Chicago Theater, filled to approximately 80 percent capacity (the band had just performed in Chicago last June). Supporting their first album since 1999, the band leaned heavily on material from their first two albums, including several surprises that kept even the die-hard fans satisfied.
Occupying only half the stage, Ben Folds, Darren Jessee on drums, and Robert Sledge on bass, ripped through six songs from The Sound of the Life of the Mind, the most effect being “Erase Me” and “Draw a Crowd,” both of which fit in relatively well with the older material. Folds admitted that they were in a sense rehearsing “Do it Anyway” for the next day’s performance on The Colbert Report, but despite this being the strongest song from the new album, it fell a bit flat live.
I tried prepping my three kids for the concert by playing songs I expected Ben Folds Five to play, but I couldn’t have foreseen “Missing the War,” “Selfless, Cold and Composed” and “Emaline,” and although the inclusion of these lesser known tracks might have made the show more difficult for the uninitiated, it was highly satisfying for long-time fans. The most surprising inclusions were the Darren Jessee-penned “Magic,” a heartbreakingly beautiful song from The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, and “Landed,” the only song the band performed from Ben Folds’s solo era.
The distinctive backing vocals that defined the band’s sound in the 90s were tight and on key, so much so that I wondered if some auto-tuning might have been employed at the mixing board. Either that, or Jessee and Seldge they’ve gotten stronger as singers over the last decade. It was a pleasure watching Jessee go about his business without fanfare on his minimalist set, though his cymbals were too loud and shrill in the mix, and Sledge, a bit more stocky than back in the day, looked especially happy to be back on stage with the band, and it was hard for the audience not to feed on the good vibes.
When someone from the audience requested “Rock this Bitch,” Ben began an impromptu composition that addressed the request, guiding his bandmates by announcing the chord changes.
The crowd-pleasing “Army” finished the regular set before the band returned with “Best Imitation of Myself” and “Underground,” two of the best tracks from their first album, and “1 Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” ended the evening to a standing ovation.
I am not a big fan of the new album, and I think the show highlighted how much stronger and more relatable their first two albums of material are than their second two. Lyrically, little of the new album makes a lot of sense. It’ll be interested to see if Ben revisits these songs with any regularity in the future either with the Five or as a solo artist, or if they’re relegated to a 2012 time capsule.