I never saw the Beatles in concert. It’s a stunning oversight, I know. But tickets were always hard to come by, what with the Fab Four permanently disbanding a decade before my birth and all. Now the only way I’ll ever get to hear the Beatles playing Beatles songs is by listening to their albums. Granted, the fact that Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper are always just the click of a “play” button away is no small consolation. But somewhere in the world there’s a sixty-year-old version of me who can actually tell people, “I once saw John, Paul, George, and Ringo do their thing live.” How can I not envy that person?
That’s one of the great privileges of experiencing live music. Even the best recordings, however polished or pristine, are only artifacts – preserved evidence of moments past. But a live performance is the moment. It’s an event that closes the distance between music makers and music lovers, turning once-remote listeners into first-hand witnesses. It’s a real-life experience where memories are recorded as much by the senses as by any camera or microphone. And it’s a chance to say, long after your favorite performer has taken their final bow, “I was there.”
One artist keenly attuned to the magic of these live-music moments is an ivory-tickling idol of mine named Ben Folds.
I first saw Ben Folds Five play in the spring of 2000, during their last tour before splitting up later that year. They were easily my favorite band back then, and I still consider Mr. Folds one of the finest pop-musicians out there. Needless to say, it was a huge thrill to see them play. And though I managed to catch another four of his solo shows over the next decade, it was always a special privilege to be able to say I saw Ben Folds back in his “Five” days. I felt like I’d witnessed a bit of 90s pop-music history, because, that’s right, I was there.
Likewise, Ben Folds Five played an important role in Dan-history, coming along at an especially pivotal moment in my life. I bought my first BF5 CD in early 1998, during my senior year in high school. I was your typical shy, awkward teenager full of adolescent angst and confusion. But I was also growing into a more open, more aware individual that year. It was a crucial period of self-discovery and personal awakening. Yup, that was the year I realized I was a gay guy. And this sweet new CD, Whatever And Ever Amen, was its non-stop soundtrack.
Of course, Ben Folds Five weren’t the reason I came out as gay. But my instant affinity for the group reflected a new facet of my emerging identity. They were the first band I’d discovered entirely on my own, signaling a newly independent and daring shift in my musical tastes. Where my prior preferences had been relatively tame (that’s tame, with a “t”, friends), BF5 were loud, smart-alecky, and did just enough cussing to make me feel like a total badass when I listened to them. Their catchy, piano-driven “punk rock for sissies” was an exciting new sound for the newer, edgier (but forever geeky) me.
Ben Folds Five split up soon after that, but twelve years later, the trio has reunited for a new album and tour. So when they made a stop in Seattle earlier this month, I got to relive the thrill of seeing them play live.
Their set, though featuring a bit of the new stuff, consisted mostly of songs from their late-90s heyday. It was a great show, with a nice blend of nostalgia and in-the-moment musical bliss. Indeed, even though I found myself drifting happily back to 1998 for much of the night, Mr. Folds has an uncanny knack for keeping his audience present for the here-and-now moments that make live performances so magical.
There’s nothing new about a good ol’ fashioned audience sing-along. But where some performers might simply encourage this kind of participation, Ben Folds relies on it. Take, for example, the BF5 classic “Army” – a song largely defined by its robust horn section. Instead of cutting this brass-heavy number from the three-man band’s set-list, Folds simply enlists the eager voices in his audience to fill the void. At the key moment, Maestro Ben gives his cue, and a thousand-person chorus erupts with a boisterous and surprisingly spot-on counterpoint of “bah-dap-baahs,” delivering the most rousing moment of the entire show.
This clever audience-as-horns bit goes back at least as far as Folds’s 2002 solo tour, and it has since become a staple of his live shows. But apart from the expected delights of a given concert, it’s the more spontaneous moments that really make each show unique and interesting. At this last BF5 show, it was things like the band’s impromptu, tongue-in-cheek rendition of “Reunited.” Or the amusing moment when Folds blanked on his lyrics mid-song and had to slowly backtrack to the preceding verse (rather than bullshitting his way through, as he confessed to often doing). And past surprises for me have included a fun cover of this 80s classic, a sweet onstage cameo by Moby, and a killer duet with one-time tourmate Rufus Wainwright.
But if there’s any one thing that draws me to a Ben Folds concert, it’s the piano. Folds may be a fine singer, and an exceptional songwriter, but the man is a freaking brilliant pop-pianist. As a quasi-passable player myself, I feel like I have a little extra appreciation (and no small amount of envy) for his ridiculous piano chops. When I see him play live, I find myself mesmerized by his dancing fingers, watching them bounce from graceful arpeggios to layered glissandos to full-bodied, key-smashing chords. I stand completely in awe of the man’s formidable talent, entranced by each deftly pounded keystroke. And I only snap out of it when Folds cuts out with his signature post-game sign-off: hurling the piano stool clear across the stage and nailing the baby grand squarely in its 88-tooth grin. It’s a final flash of rowdy, carefree showmanship – a piano man’s answer to the guitar-smashing rockers of yore – and it effing rules.
I’ve now seen Ben Folds in concert a total of six times, and counting. Maybe that’ll impress a few folks thirty years from now, but I’m not holding my breath that BF5 will be remembered as my generation’s Beatles. Nevertheless, for an artist safely regarded as one of my personal favorites, I’ve checked the “I was there” box, and then some. (I was even in the audience for the version of “Philosophy” that appears on the Ben Folds Live album. Check it out!) But bragging rights aside, the reason I do my best to catch Ben Folds whenever he’s in town is that he consistently rewards me with fantastic performances. I’ll always have his albums to listen to, and his songbooks live perpetually by my piano’s side. And as long as he’s the guy who puts on a terrific show, I’ll be the guy looking to score tickets. Because each live performance is a unique experience for which there is no substitute, and the memories of having beenthere are priceless.