BEN FOLDS FIVE: LIVE (2013)
1) Jackson Cannery; 2) Erase Me; 3) Selfless, Cold And Composed; 4) Uncle Walter; 5) Landed; 6) Sky High; 7) One Chord Blues/Billie's Bounce; 8) Do It Anyway/Overture/Heaven On Their Minds; 9) Brick; 10) Draw A Crowd; 11) Narcolepsy; 12) Underground; 13) Tom And Mary; 14) One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces; 15) Song For The Dumped.
Considering that the Five never got around to releasing a live album in their «classic years», maybe it is not too late to capture them in their full glory during their reunion period? After all, it's not as if Ben, Robert, and Darren were decrepit 70-year olds with burnt-out vocal cords and arthritic fingers — and it isn't that they are doing this only for the money, either, since there is not a heck of a lot of money to be made these days by being part of The Ben Folds Five. No matter how twisted the collective and individual histories of these guys may have been, when they play together, they are clearly in it for the magic chemistry.
Just how magical it is, however, is not altogether clear from this live album. First, it does not represent a complete show, but is rather assembled from bits of shows played all over the world during the band's 2012-13 tour (US, UK, Canada, Australia, Japan all represented). This is a bit suspicious already — could that mean they rarely had the energy to sustain a complete show? And if it is merely a consequence of Ben's perfectionism, then who needs perfectionism, rather than sheer spirit, on a live rock'n'roll album?
Second, perfectionism or not, I do not feel that Live gives us the very best of Ben Folds as a singer. He sounds okay for the most part, but rarely better than okay, and quite often, he seems to wobble and flutter on the high notes (the falsetto on ʽErase Meʼ is almost unbearable at times). It is true that Ben has never been a technically awesome singer, and truer still that it is not at all easy to sing and play the piano at the same time, but he did sound better on Ben Folds Live and Songs For Goldfish, despite that. It is not a huge complaint, since some numbers are done better than others, and only a few songs' success completely hangs upon vocal modulation anyway, yet when you are in the market for a piano pop-based live record, every little thing counts.
On the positive side, the rhythm section is impeccable, particularly Sledge and his bass grooves; the crowd goes wild whenever he gets a chance to show off his distorted mini-solos (like on the closing ʽSong For The Dumpedʼ), and we finally get to hear ʽOne Angry Dwarfʼ in all of its explosive glory, as opposed to Ben's solo piano live version on Ben Folds Live — reason enough to add the album to your collection if you are one of those people who identifies profoundly with the song and its message.
The setlist predictably concentrates on old Ben Folds Five classics — it is hardly coincidental that they chose ʽJackson Canneryʼ, the first song off their first album, as the lead-in track — as well as throws in a few numbers from their latest and not-at-all-greatest, but, fortunately, only a few, and usually the best and most energetic ones (ʽErase Meʼ, ʽDo It Anywayʼ), since none of the ballads from The Sound... can really match the poignancy of ʽBrickʼ or ʽNarcolepsyʼ. Ben gets to sneak in one number at least from his solo career (ʽLandedʼ), a couple of obscure rarities (ʽTom & Maryʼ), and some novelty stuff — ʽOne Chord Bluesʼ represents his trademark improvisation routine (including a resuscitated blues-style ʽRock This Bitchʼ somewhere within its depths), and ʽDo It Anywayʼ forms a medley with, of all things, ʽHeaven On Their Mindsʼ from Jesus Christ Superstar (!). Ben Folds as Judas? Don't really think so, but if you want to start looking for hidden symbolism, go ahead, by all means. (Personally, I'd guess that he simply spent the previous day accidentally listening to some Andrew Lloyd Webber).
Bottomline: listenable and enjoyable — yes, but complete satisfaction is not guaranteed. Too many of those little things — weak vocals, questionable parts of the setlist, and, most importantly, the rag-taggy track sequencing, which would rather be expectable of some big-shot heavy-weight arena-rock hero, striving for towering heights («Bruce Springsteen Rocks The World Over!»), but hardly of our little bespectacled friend who has, perhaps, always dreamed of becoming the next Elton John, but who has always had too much taste, too much intelligence, too much depth, and too little musical genius to allow himself to become the next Elton John. I'd much, much rather hear this band do a short, tight, coherent set in a single small club setting than have them presented in disjointed snippets as some sort of arena heroes — in fact, for what it's worth, it is possible to do just that by getting the old video recording Complete Sessions At West 54th, dating from 1998 and satisfying just about every need that Ben Folds Five Live may not satisfy. That was the real deal; this album, while not half-bad, is a questionable facsimile in comparison.
Check "Live" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Live" (MP3) on Amazon