BEN FOLDS: BEN FOLDS LIVE (2002)
1) One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces; 2) Zak And Sara; 3) Silver Street; 4) Best Imitation Of Myself; 5) Not The Same; 6) Jane; 7) One Down; 8) Fred Jones, Pt. 2; 9) Brick; 10) Narcolepsy; 11) Army; 12) The Last Polka; 13) Tiny Dancer; 14) Rock This Bitch; 15) Philosophy; 16) The Luckiest; 17) Emaline.
Given the good reputation of Ben Folds Five as a live performing unit, it seems a wee bit strange that Ben procrastinated so long with an official live album — long enough for the band to disperse. On the other hand, putting out a predictable live album is sort of a routine affair; Ben Folds Live opts for the harsher scenario, presenting Ben Folds as a very literally solo artist — just the man and his piano. With the exception of John McCrea stepping out on the stage for a sec to sing the additional vocal part on ʽFred Jonesʼ (reprising his role on the studio album), Ben and only Ben is here to hold your attention for about seventy minutes.
The related question seems obvious, and if you can answer it in the positive, this alone justifies the existence of the album. Few pop artists dare to venture out in the cold with nothing but their piano (even Carole King prefers to have at least a bass player and an acoustic guitarist at her side), seeing as how their audiences prefer to get a little something extra as well for their money. And, after all, Ben Folds is no Horowitz when it comes to making piano magic, so the potential for boredom could be quite high even if he only concentrated on the hooky highlights.
It does get a bit boring from time to time, for sure; the good news is that Ben's studio charisma freely spills over onto the stage, and he does his best to provide intelligent entertainment, mixed with enough friendliness and humor to make it all seem like a house party — one where the invited piano player quite unexpectedly turned out to be so much better you'd think he'd be, he immediately becomes the focus of attention for the entire evening. Not only does he play and sing every bit as good as on the studio records (no slacking allowed whatsoever), but he finds time and strength to improvise, to tell stories, to lead the audience in rather non-trivial singalongs, to pay tribute to some of his idols, and even to torture his piano a little bit (fortunately, not on the brutal level of Keith Emerson, but in a more overtly melodic manner).
When necessary, he can rock his piano hard enough for us to forget the lack of extra stage hands — ʽOne Angry Dwarfʼ goes off like a hot set of firecrackers, and so does ʽArmyʼ in the middle of the set. But he can also be less-than-serious about it: ʽRock This Bitchʼ is a one-minute long improvisation, taking as its base the possibly-drunk yelling of one of the fans — you can either take it as a silly, failed joke, or as a thinly veiled hint at what Ben Folds really thinks about the stereotypical «rock'n'roll mentality». Since the joke stuck (Ben went on to improvies various versions of ʽRock This Bitchʼ on subsequent tours), he probably thought it was coolly ironic, although, much to his honor, he eventually got bored with having to go through the same stupid ritual over and over again.
Other non-standard points of interest include: (a) Ben leading the people in some fairly complex sing-along activities on ʽArmyʼ, where he does need someone to fill in for the brass section; (b) Ben covering Elton John's ʽTiny Dancerʼ — great song, faithful and inspired performance, but, unfortunately, it also reminds very acutely of what it is that separates a fabulous singer from a merely competent one (referring, of course, to Elton's original singing voice); (c) Ben adding a lengthy improvised section to ʽPhilosophyʼ, including using the piano as a percussive instrument, playing the piano strings directly, throwing in a bit of ʽMisirlouʼ, and culminating with a touch of ʽRhapsody In Blueʼ; (d) Ben finishing the show with ʽEmalineʼ, an obscure — but, frankly speaking, not too memorable — tune from his early songwriting days as the leader of «Majosha», a short-lived band from 1988-89 that only managed one short album.
In between, you get a solid share of Ben Folds Five classics, interspersed with songs from Rockin' The Suburbs, a couple rarities, and a few anecdotes dealing with the origins of ʽNot The Sameʼ, ʽBrickʼ, and others. If you are real lucky, you can also end up with the limited edition that comes with a small DVD — where you can see for yourself that Ben Folds wears a bowler hat, plays a Baldwin, and does somewhat resemble a young Elton John (the latter point makes me a little uneasy about the future, but at least the man seems to lead a healthier lifestyle). All in all, it's not a must-have or anything, but the general quality is quite high, and there are enough of those little extra touches that guarantee a little intrigue. Thumbs up.
Check "Ben Folds Live" (CD) on Amazon