There’s being in Lake Michigan’s presence. There’s afternoon games at Wrigley Field.
And then there’s watching Ben Fold Five live. Twelve years after they disbanded and I doubted whether they’d ever be heard from again.
For two hours tonight I think I died and went to heaven. For two hours, all of life’s stresses left my mind. Everything was right with the world. Life was perfect.
After the crush of missing a chance to see their reunion show at Summerfest, my favorite band in the history of mankind booked some fall concerts, including a show at Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre. I booked a ticket within minutes of the seats going on sale. … It also redeemed another lost opportunity when I desperately wanted to see the band at Starlight in June 1998, only to have my plans derailed when my parents opted to move back to Wisconsin and I was sent with my dad to help him settle in to the new place. Of course, my parents are always quick to remind me that had I not agreed to the move, I never would have met Kates, and, well, the rest is history.
But back to now …
I’ve written so much about Ben Folds over the years, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot more I can say.
The musicianship of Ben Folds, Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge is something special. Their play tonight was so tight, it was as if they’d never been apart. They’ve matured individually as musicians and it's made their little band sound better than ever. They were in their element. By playing on stage together each of them makes the others better. And they make it look so easy.
I’m convinced Ben Folds is one of the most talented pianists in the world, in this era. I’ve said before that Darren Jessee is so automatic on the drums he’s like one of those drum-beating windup monkeys. And Robert Sledge can just plain play a mean bass guitar. Throughout, they took solo turns on their respective instruments, sometimes straying way off the original arrangements.
They opened with “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later,” a song from the new album, and followed it with the softer, slower “Missing the War” off their peak album “Whatever and Ever Amen.”
As I leaned forward in my seat and took in the trio’s signature sound, I couldn’t help but close my eyes and sigh a deep happy sigh. Chills ran down my spine and I was transported back to my glorious youth.
That’s how it went for most of the night as the band drew a pattern of new songs and old songs. Upbeat songs and slow songs. … And with the smoke machines endlessly clouding the stage, I sometimes wondered if I was dreaming the whole thing. (After the opening number, Ben unexpectedly ran off the stage for a couple minutes. When he returned, he said into the mic that he had to tell the stage guys he wanted more smoke.)
I’ll also say this, hearing the new songs live gave me a much deeper appreciation for the new album, and it may grow on me faster than I first thought. I fell in love with “Sky High” and “Hold That Thought” the first time I heard them, and hearing them live tonight solidified them as favorites within Ben’s all-time catalogue.
Here's “Sky High” ...
And here's “Hold That Thought” ...
There was perhaps no song I anticipated hearing more than their 1997 hit, and arguably my favorite of all, “Battle of Who Could Care Less.” Ben led it off with a story about the premise of the song that I’d never heard.
The guys really turned it up a notch during the last third or so of the show, playing “Philosophy” and “Kate” without a break and then transitioning seamlessly from “Song for the Dumped” to “Army” – all four songs making for nearly 20 minutes of non-stop playing. The crowd never sang louder tonight than it did on “Song for the Dumped,” especially when Ben took a break from the piano and led a rollicking crowd sing-along on the chorus. From there, he returned to the piano and knocked out some of his “Weather Channel Music.” Then, when Ben gave the cue during “Army,” the audience knew exactly what to do and belted out the horn parts without hesitation.
After “Army,” the band left the stage for a few minutes before returning for an encore featuring two songs that every hardcore fan knew they couldn’t leave without playing. To the crowd’s delight they kicked out “Underground” and then a raucous, fast-paced “One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces.”
Here's “Underground” ... I couldn't capture the entire song because I filled the memory card on my camera.
To finish it off, as he always does, Ben picked up his piano stool. Dropped back from his piano, like a quarterback stepping back from the line of scrimmage, and threw the stool at the piano keys for a final thunderous note.
Interestingly, “Landed” was the only song from Ben’s solo albums to make an appearance in the show. I could name at least a dozen other songs I wish the band would have played – “Don’t Change your Plans,” “Mess,” “Evaporated,” “Theme From Dr. Pyser,” “Zak and Sara,” “Video,” “Where's Summer B?”, “Sports and Wine,” “Not the Same.” Heck the concert could have lasted another two hours and I still would not have been tired.
But I wasn't totally surprised. In all my years of seeing Ben and his respective mates perform, they've never played longer than they had to.
All things must come to an end, and I had to drift back to reality at some point.
On a couple side notes ...
Kate Miller-Heidke opened the concert. I'd never heard of her, but I enjoyed her airy vocals and single acoustic-guitar-playing partner. She opened with "Caught in the Crowd," which sounded a lot like this (compared to the dramatically more poppy album version) -- whistling and all -- and it completely delighted me; it was a great tone-setter for the cool autumn night. Sadly, Miller-Heidke went more new agey with the rest of her set, and her opera training showed loudly, which turned me off.
It turned out Miller-Heidke has been touring with Ben Folds for years and said she likes's playing for his audiences because "they're generally made up of intelligent, warm, musically literate people." She's right.
The temperature for the night was in the '50s -- far lower than the '70s we've had for most of this week and far lower than I expected. Wearing shorts and a T-shirt, I was not prepared. And as much as I hoped I could fight through the chill, I decided my enjoyment of the night's entertainment was going to be seriously hindered if I didn't do something. So I ventured over to the merchandise table and my eyes latched onto a couple Ben Folds Five "Reunion Tour" hooded sweatshirts -- or hoodies, as the kids are calling them these days. I've never been one to buy up T-shirts and memorabilia when I go to concerts, but on this night -- for once -- the prices were reasonable. And there was a red hoodie with white trim that I thought was pretty dang cool, so I bought it.
Despite the cool temps, the sky was clear and the full moon shined overhead. It was beautiful fall night for a concert.
Here’s Ben Folds Five’s full set list:
1. Michael Praytor, Five Years Later
2. Missing the War
3. Hold That Thought
4. Jackson Cannery
5. Selfless, Cold and Composed
6. Erase Me
7. Alice Childress
8. Sky High
11. Battle of Who Could Care Less
12. Do It Anyway
14. Best Imitation of Myself
15. Draw a Crowd
18. Song For the Dumped
21. One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces