Ben Folds Five Prove Their Staying Power At The Wiltern
Ben Folds looks like an older, scruffier Schroeder from “Peanuts” as he sit-stands hunched over the grand piano on stage. But instead of bars of classical music emerging from some phantom space beside his head, it’s piano rock at its finest that engulfs both levels of the Wiltern Theatre all Saturday night.
Ben Folds Five, comprised of Folds, Robert Sledge, and Darren Jessee, reunited and recorded new music in 2011 after a decade long hiatus, and Saturday’s show was their first return to any Los Angeles stage since their breakup—a grand total of 13 years ago.
The band was formed in 1993, and its age was reflected in the age of the audience—from middle-aged couples enjoying a weekend outing to 20somethings chatting animatedly in groups and nursing Blue Moon in plastic cups, everyone there was steeped in the mythos of Ben Folds and his merry men, and when push came to shove, audience members of every age raised their fists and voices and sang along in voices of varying pitch accuracy.
Opening up for the night was Nataly Dawn, one half of the popular Youtube group Pomplamoose. With her strong instrumental backing ensemble and sparkling cocktail dress, Dawn looked the part of an alt-pop Taylor Swift, if Swift actually cared about the live component of her music versus the spectacle of the performance.
As a musician myself, I was personally touched to see her introduce a song by her guitarist Ryan Lerman, “Baby, I’ll Be Alright,” to which she contributed vocals.
Dawn’s clear as a bell voice rang in the theatre, and she herself clicked with the audience as she joked around, saying, “Stay for Ben Folds! He’s great… Don’t leave after my set!”
And if anyone was obtuse enough to actually leave, they missed a fantastic showcase of vocal and instrumental showmanship.
Folds and co. took the stage and played and sang their hearts out with as much fervor as performers half their age, belting through both staples of their catalog like “Jackson Cannery” and tunes from their post-reunion album, “The Sound of the Life of the Mind,” like “Hold That Thought” and “Erase Me.”
Throughout the set, Folds (and only ever Folds) addressed the audience to both acknowledge the band’s long absence from performing and his own personal wry sense of humor.
One such case occurred as he introduced the song “Battle of Who Could Care Less,” saying, “This song is about an imaginary rivalry between two imaginary chess players… and it's in the key of G, more or less.”
In another moment, Folds lamented his choice of clothing—a red corduroy shirt—as he sweated under the stage lights, saying that he’d consulted a fashion opinion because the people in LA are “well-dressed motherfuckers.”
In two instances, the trio broke into spontaneous instrumental improv jam sessions, and the crowd whooped and hollered along with the performers as they moved from melodic strain to melodic strain with the kind of ease and trust that only develops between musicians who’ve played with each other for years.
Toward the end of the set, Folds revealed the origins of one of the band’s newer songs, “Do It Anyway,” sharing, “This song began from here… I was saying that I couldn’t shake my ass while I was playing the piano and someone out there yelled, ‘Do it anyway!’”
The formal set ended with the blistering “Army,” and the band and the crowd engaged in a vocal back and forth.
After an intermission which included stomping from the balcony that was so loud and forceful that the entire theatre shook, the trio took the stage for their encore set, which included “Philosophy,” “Chopsticks,” and “Magic.”
Right before their last song, “Underground,” Folds shared a story about a performance in Los Angeles (while he never pinned down the venue, people in the crowd were shouting “Universal City!”) in which the band opened for Tears for Fears, the group most known for the original “Mad World.”
“Tears for Fears, right?” quipped Folds, as the crowd laughed.
While the sentiment is crass, Folds, Sledge, and Jessee have every right to say what they want. Few bands survive the test of time, and Ben Folds Five has an expansive and strong catalog built on a strong foundation of performance and songwriting.
Folds’s dexterous piano playing and vocal emoting, combined with Sledge’s blistering guitar lines and sheer variety of instrument proficiencies and Jessee’s steady and precise drumming, comes together to form a potent musical ensemble.
While it is the band’s lyrical content, of ordinary problems elevated into narrative journeys, that clicks and stays with most people, it is the band’s skilled musicianship that makes their performances such a joy to experience, and their music itself relevant and engrossing.
So, Ben Folds Five, you can take my money and my symbolic black t-shirt (back?) any day.
Read more of NT’s show reviews here.