The reunion of Ben Folds Five has been a great success so far. Last year they toured together for the first time since 2000 and put out a great new album called The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind. I got to see them at Chicago Theatre last year, and they were phenomenal. The chemistry was still there and Ben seemed to enjoy playing with his band again. So, when the opportunity arose to go see them again I immediately jumped at it.
The show was part of a tour Ben Folds Five is doing with Barenaked Ladies called the Last Summer On Earth Tour (hopefully it isn’t). I had never been to FirstMerit Bank Pavilion, formerly known as Charter One Pavilion. As far as outdoor venues go, it’s pretty nice. It’s smaller than I had imagined, and the seats that are the furthest back are elevated so you can still see. The piece of land it sits on is beautiful, over on Northerly Island right on the water. The view when you exit the park is a spectacular panorama of the Chicago skyline.
Gates opened up at 6 and we got there at almost 7. Kari had to get her photo pass and I like to get to shows early anyway. The opener, Boothby Graffoe, went on at 7:30 and played a short set of about five or six songs. After the first song he was joined by Barenaked Ladies bass player Jim Creegan. The next he brought out keyboardist Kevin Hearn. For the final, and best, song of the set he also brought out Ed Robertson-so it was basically Boothby Graffoe with the Barenaked Ladies as his backing band. A pretty sweet deal for an opening artist.
I didn’t care much for his set. The songs were filled with slightly humorous lyrics and his stage presence was akin to a bad stand-up comic. He was entertaining some of the people around me, though, so I guess he knows his audience. His voice reminded me of Nick Lowe, who I also don’t care for much. Maybe it’s a British thing.
It didn’t take long for the stage to get reset for Ben Folds Five, and only a couple minutes later than the stated 7:55 start time Folds appeared from behind the huge backdrop to great applause. At this point it was now 8pm, and there were still a ton of open seats-I was one of five people in my row with 20 seats. Maybe everyone was up getting a beer, but I was a bit sad to think that everyone that bought tickets to this show were just coming to see Barenaked Ladies. Once the music started the seats began to fill up, though.
They opened with “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” off the band’s latest album. Not a surprising opener since their still touring behind the new album, but maybe not the best choice. It’s a good song, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t have that kick you need to grab an audience. The second song they played, “200 Solemn Faces And One Angry Dwarf,” would have made a better impression. That said, for the most part the crowd seemed into it from the second they walked out, so maybe they already had everyone’s attention.
I’ve always been impressed with Ben Folds’ ability at the piano. There aren’t many pop musicians who are so talented with an instrument, and he’s a real virtuoso. He’s so good in fact, that the technical prowess of his bandmates has been overlooked since the beginning. On more than one occasion during the set I found myself staring at Robert Sledge as he tore through song after song on the bass. Some of the sounds he gets to come out of that things are unreal-I mean they just don’t naturally come out of a bass like that.
The songs they chose to play ran through the entire course of their history, including a selection from Ben’s solo work, “Landed.” I always wonder if Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee feel like they’re playing a cover song when they do anything that was a Folds-only release. They seem to be ok with it, and the version of the song they do as a band is phenomenal. After “Brick,” “Landed” is probably the biggest hit Folds has had in his career, so it’s good that they can play it as Ben Folds Five and it doesn’t seem weird.
As the sky turned from day to night, and the fear of an impending rain shower passed, the band dug in deeper to their initial run of releases. The final three songs of the set were a Ben Folds Five lovers dream come true. They played a long version of “Narcolepsy” that normally might be the regular set closer and then they would come back and play an encore. Since they weren’t headlining this show, they launched straight into “Song For The Dumped” and followed that with the crowd sing-along “Army” to close.
I thought this show was amazing. My only quibble would be with the sound system. It definitely could have been much louder. I don’t know if that’s a noise issue because it’s near the museum or something, but the vocals especially were a little buried in the mix. Other than that, it was a gorgeous night to be out seeing a live show, and Ben Folds Five provided a perfect soundtrack (after that first song). Hopefully they’ll be back again soon on their own so they can play a bit longer. One hour just isn’t enough time to play all my favorites.
Michael Praytor, Five Years Later
200 Solemn Faces And One Angry Dwarf
Missing The War
Draw A Crowd
Do It Anyway
Song For The Dumped