Featuring: Fight The Dice, Million Empire. Duchamp Pilot, Dan The Thief & Alex Kidd More
Ben Folds Five With Support by Bitter Ruin.
Review by BlackSoda
At Birmingham O2. Monday 03 December 2012
After a comically farcical journey, listening to but not concentrating on Ben Folds Five’s new album; The Sound of the Life of the Mind, all the way to Birmingham, it was quite a relief to finally find myself within the walls of the O2 Academy.
The support was the music-schooled Bitter Ruin, an odd, ethereal reedy-voiced folkish duo who seemed to be straining for a kooky sincerity. Maybe the room was too big, making them look too small, maybe I was too far away (insert Father Ted joke here), maybe I hadn’t thawed out sufficiently, but they seemed completely wrong for the occasion. I could see them opening for The Unthanks or First Aid Kit or some other act from somewhere cold and serious, but in this instance they succeeded in bemusing the assembled more than warming them up for the main event.
It’s been thirteen years since the original members of post beat-generation honkytonk jazz-rock trio Ben Folds Five (Ben Folds, Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge) released an album together (The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, 1999) and the same eon since they graced these fine shores, so you would expect their dyed-in-the-corduroy UK fans to be chomping at the bit to catch a glimpse of their favourite ear-crumpet. But the years had marched on for the crowd too: 90% of the assembled were of a certain age, dare I say it of a certain appearance, and seemingly, of a certain temperament.
Ben Folds Five was the band they got into at uni and they were here to remember that despite the kids and the mortgage and the one-night-out-leading-to-a-fortnight-long-hangover they were still young and they still loved music. If I sound like I’m complaining, I’m not, it was wonderful. Like finding yourself in the congregation of a church with a charismatic preacher and a mesmerised room. But with slightly less danger of indoctrination.
Right from the kick off there was an air of knowing (bordering on the smug) comfort mixed in with awe. A hip dismissal of the hipsters, the self-satisfied nerdyness that comes with maturity, integrity and intelligence, comes with being beyond (or secretly suspecting you’re above) trying to be cool, encapsulated in the new album’s title ‘The Sound of the Life of the Mind’. This is the music that came before people starting using ‘math’ as prefix. Before telly made music into coliseum sport.
BFF’s intro music was some fairly ‘ardkore techno, a roll of the eyes at the mechanized computerized synthesized direction music has drifted of late and it laid out their stall straight away: “We’re back, we write and play real music, to hell with the rest of them, come and hang out with us”. In short, little has changed since the “I was never cool in school” double-bluff lamenting of 1995’s ‘Underground’. There is a tiny streak of disdain for their audience in Ben Folds that is oddly mutual and even oddlier, quite endearing.
Ostensibly they write songs about people and for people who are like them, the vital difference being, of course, that the majority of the audience aren’t in successful bands. But the audience too (possibly this is more true in Britain) seem to have an affectionate version of this same attitude. During the apparently traditional venue tailored bluesy riffing of ‘Rock this Bitch’ (it raised a smile from me to hear Folds take the care to pronounce “Birming-um”) a fan leaned in to me and whispered dotingly “he always does this, he thinks it’s funny”.
The set was a fan-sating flick through the family album of the back catalogue as well as the new material and their New York coffee shop Big Bang boogie-woogie chic certainly makes for a charming listen. There is no doubt also, that BFF can perform, though it has to be said the self-indulgence and window-dressing introversion could become somewhat tedious for non-obsessives. Fortunately, the place was teeming with obsessives, so it was fine.
The late-sixties influences are prominent (you can pick out The Beatles piano riffs and the Simon and Garfunkel harmonies in every other song) but it is pleasingly gimmickless. If it hadn’t been highjacked by a bunch of American crazies I would use the phrase ‘intelligent design’.
Highlights included the sonic underwater boom of ‘Missing the War’, the dark rock pounding Pink Floyd-ey ‘Erase Me’, the reflective, blue-lit ‘Sky High’ and the stomping hillbilly funk of ‘Do it Anyway’, alongside ‘Brick’ and ‘Underground’, the necessary hits. But then there was the requests section, which further cemented the face-licking relationship between crowd and band as this seemed to be when the audience animated.
I think this, as with many cult bands, is a secret science, an algorithm the true beauty of which can only been seen by those who understand it. For these fans, watching the reunited band, clearly enjoying playing together again, was watching a triptych being reassembled and their favourite magic eye picture emerging, recognising every song from the first finger on the piano and happily following the flights of fancy.
The band played for 90 minutes in all. 90 minutes of affable enthusiasm from the crowd. 90 minutes light on stage banter and heavy on ad-lib adventures. By the end it had taken on more of an ’experience’ quality, although I was feeling a bit jazz-clobbered and ever so slightly patronised. On leaving the venue among the truly gratified crowd however, you couldn’t help but feel happy for them; they had got their die-hard fanboy dream, they had seen their favourite band live and it was a privilege to witness.