Ben Folds Five, self described as “punk rock for sissies”, centered around pianist Ben Folds’ song writing and vocals with bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee. After recording three full length studio albums, the band broke up in October of 2000. Folds moved on to a successful solo career along with being a judge for the NBC A capella singing competition The Sing Off. Jessee formed his own indie band, Hotel Lights, in 2005, featuring his own song writing prowess in three full length albums and one EP. Sledge was a member of International Orange, the Bob Sledge Band, played live with Mandolin Orange and gave private bass guitar lessons in the Chapel Hill area. On September 18, 2008 the three original members of Ben Folds Five performed the entirety of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner for MySpace’s webcast series Front to Back. The band came together again in 2011 to work together on three “new” songs for Folds’ retrospective compilation The Best Immitation of Myself. Although only one of the songs, House, was truly a new collaboration, Tell Me What I Did, a song penned by Sledge, was played in several concerts in 2000 while Stumblin Home Winter Blues was included in Hotel Lights’ self titled debut, the band realized they still had a great energy together. 12 years after the band parted ways, Folds, Sledge and Jessee found themselves touring the world once again in support of their fourth album The Sound of the Life of the Mind. The songs that make up Live were recorded from multiple cities throughout this tour.
The 15 track album includes recordings from ten different concerts. There is a strong mixture of songs that span their career, including their most critically acclaimed song, “Brick” off of Whatever and Ever Amen, as well as “Landed” from Folds’ solo album Songs for Silverman. Live is not heavily burdened with new songs; only four of the tracks are from The Sound of the Life of the Mind. It does take a while for the album to find a steady rhythm and is front loaded with several slow songs. The overall sound of the album is superb and the band is in top form. Folds, Sledge and Jessee do not sound like a band recently reformed. They are seasoned musicians, completely at ease with each other. Darren resumes drumming duties after more than a decade on guitar; his fills are flawless. Robert rocks the fuzz and stand up bass as well as a synthesizer. Ben’s piano playing is aggressive. Sledge and Jessee nail their harmonies on every track. The full sound that is created by just three musicians is impressive.
There are wonderful moments of improvisation. Folds, well known for creating songs on the spot as a result of fans shouting requests at him, doesn’t disappoint. “One Chord Blues Billie’s Bounc”e finds Folds at his geekiest, singing about chord progressions, while Jessee and Sledge effortlessly jam along. “Narcolepsy” receives extended solos by each member, stretching the track out past nine minutes. This is Ben Folds Five at their best. The dynamics are momentous, allowing for an incredible build up throughout the song.
Another wonderful surprise was the inclusion of “Tom and Mary,” a track originally cut from the band’s self titled debut that resurfaced on Naked Baby Photos. “Sky High,” a song penned by Jessee from The Sound of the Life of the Mind, sounds just as good live as it did on the studio version. “Draw a Crowd” opens with Sledge on synthesizers and Folds flubs the chords. Instead of faltering, he encourages the boisterous crowd to continue clapping, while he breaks into a rap supported by Sledge.
Although there are songs that capture the vivacity of a Ben Folds Five performance, the album is lacking cohesion. A highlight of any live performance is the interaction between the band members and the audience and this album has very little of it. By selecting tracks from multiple shows, there is no continuity. It stifles the energy and gives the listener no insight into the sarcasm the band is so well known for. The album ends with Folds asking the audience if they would like another song and the crowd responds with excited cheers, but there is no encore. It just stops. It’s completely baffling to include that particular version of “Song For the Dumped” when there were dozens of performances to choose from. Why not include one more song? Why not include the fan favorite track Army, which was performed at the majority of the shows during this tour? If you do indeed want to enjoy one more song, you have the opportunity to see Ben Folds Five share a stage with Barenaked Ladies and Guster during their Last Summer on Earth tour.