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At Long Last, Ben Folds Five Reunites, Return to Los Angeles: Concert Review

Ben Folds Five at Wiltern LA - P 2013
Kyleen James

The Bottom Line

Like a fine wine, indie rock's beloved trio has only benefited from 13 years out of the light.

Venue

Wiltern Theatre
Los Angeles
(Saturday, Jan. 26)

The last time Ben Folds Five played as a group in Los Angeles, the iPod had yet to be born, Y2K was a good year away, and Bill Clinton was still president.

The trio -- composed of singer Ben Folds, drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge -- broke up in 2000 after seven years together, and to many fans, it felt like a premature end. After all, their piano-smashing anthems and slow-burning ballads had only grown in popularity, while the band became beloved representatives of the best that indie rock offered.

Folds went on to record solo albums and collaborate with such artists as actor William Shatner, musician Amanda Palmer and author Nick Hornby, as well as play judge on NBC’s The Sing-Off, but anticipation of a Ben Folds Five reunion lingered until 2012 when they announced a new album, The Sound of the Life of the Mind.

By the time they took the stage Saturday night at the Wiltern Theatre, it was a concert 13 years in the making, and both the band and the near-capacity crowd responded with appropriate enthusiasm.

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In typical '90s fashion -- which is to say, lack thereof -- Folds wore a red corduroy shirt while Jessee and Sledge looked more like dads about to pick up their kid from soccer practice than rockers. But that's to be expected. For a band that prides itself on being uncool, fashion-forwardness and posturing were anathema. "I was never cool in school/I'm sure you don't remember me/And now it's been 10 years/I'm still wondering who to be," they harmonized on "Underground," the falsetto-laden single from their debut that could easily serve as a mission statement from this band with outsider appeal.  

The troupe performed 20 songs from the Ben Folds Five library, offering a range of pop ephemera -- from the raucous stomp of the new "Erase" to fuzzed-out funky rocker "Jackson Cannery," from its self-titled 1995 debut. A constant: Fold's firebrand Jerry Lee Lewis piano-banging on songs like "Battle of Who Could Care Less," for which he stood crumpled over the keys, along with simple melodies (like "Brick") accompanied by lumbering notes from Sledge's upright bass.

The audience sang along to every word. In fact, at one point, all the band members stopped playing to listen to the crowd spontaneously erupt in two-part harmony.  

Vocals aside, what really makes Ben Folds Five unique is Sledge's bass sound. The warm, distorted fuzz plays double duty, keeping the rhythm and filling the void in this guitar-less band. And where others might sound like they’re auditioning a theme song for a 1980s sitcom, Ben Folds Five is actually one of the hardest-rocking bands around. The tightness of the rhythm section with Folds' frenetic finger work creates a seamless synergy. Onstage, they traded licks and quips, even improvising a song that started as a blues number, shifted into jazz and ended as a soul number, with Folds making up hilarious absurd lyrics along the way. 

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This stellar musicianship of the piano-bar variety makes Ben Folds Five into an unpredictable melange of musical styles. Bands like them, in the last moments before the millennial shift, amalgamated all sounds of the preceding century into a genre pastiche. Folds is no different; on those 88 keys, he conjured sounds from ragtime to Dixieland to honky tonk to a fugue. Hat tips to Gershwin co-exist alongside a piano rendition of Dick Dale's incendiary "Miserlou," the surf classic famously affiliated with Pulp Fiction.

It's precisely that mix-and-match patchwork of sound that best reflects the '90s -- a decade that showcased sampling and nostalgia acts and looked back in time for influence. But for Folds, despite the flourishes of bygone sonic tidbits, the band created something new and distinct. They were self-effacing and honest, and that was its selling point. Positioning itself against the angst and unaffected mope of grunge, Folds fit into the college rock sound, an earnest scene that had more in common with R.E.M. than the indie rock that would explode on the scene in the middle 2000s.

Today, hearing these lyrics from songs nearly 20 years old reveals the cultural touchstones and concerns of that decade. The crisis of consciousness in the '90s was a battle for authenticity, to position oneself against the cynicism that came with economic largesse. Before 9/11, before 10 years of war, before the great recession, Ben Folds Five battled apathy and pessimism, providing silver linings existential emotional clouds. 

The audience exploded with each shard of optimism, and to beckon the band back to the stage for an encore, they launched into a fevered chant of "B-F-F" -- a reminder that, for this band from the pre-emoticon and Internet acronym era, this call of adulation could have meant something else entirely: "Ben Folds forever."

Set List:

Michael Praytor, Five Years Later
Jackson Cannery
Hold That Thought
Selfless, Cold and Composed
Erase Me
Landed
Sky High
Missing the War
Battle of Who Could Care Less
Draw a Crowd
Thank You For Breaking My Heart
Brick
Theme From Dr. Pyser
Army
Do It Anyway
Alice Childress
Tonight the Bottle Let me Down
Song For The Dumped

Encore:

Philosophy
Chopsticks
Magic
Underground

Twitter: @THRMusic

Kyleen James