Ben Folds Five at the Showbox at the Market, Seattle. Photo: Jason Tang / SMI.

Ben Folds Five at the Showbox at the Market, Seattle. Photo: Jason Tang / SMI.
Ben Folds Five are an oddity. And I’m not talking about the fact that there are only three of them. Their curious brand of witty, literate piano pop doesn’t exist anywhere else outside of Ben Folds‘ head – it’s an anomaly, a weird curio that hearkens back to simpler times.

Thankfully, it’s also incredibly catchy, and undeniably popular. Their show at Seattle’s Showbox at the Market is sold out weeks in advance, and people are lining up outside the venue on Monday February 4th to get inside. It’s gray, and raining, and a little cold. But there’s a buzz of excitement before we even make it through the doors. Ben Folds Five split in 2000, and while Folds has released multiple solo albums since then, there was never this aura of anticipation at his shows. I’m going to go ahead and say it: there isn’t a single song that Folds released during his solo career which lives up to the rest of the band’s output. Sometimes, when the chemistry is right, playing music relies on a little magic.

The magic is certainly still there. Their set opens with ‘Michael Praytor, Five Years Later’ from latest album The Sound of the Life of the Mind, and you can almost feel the chemistry fizzing in the air. Folds’ piano playing has always been like a wilder, trippier Elton John, and the rest of the band display their full range of idiosyncrasies: Robert Sledge struts with his bass as if he’s playing lead guitar, while Darren Jessee strokes the drumkit with an unlikely fusion of rock and freeform jazz. If you took these elements in isolation you’d say that Ben Folds Five should never work – but work they do, and the crowd is quick to appreciate it. They’re a little bold, a little rough around the edges, but never anything less than entertaining.

Most of the night’s highlights still come from the older tunes, which is to be expected. The new album feels like a return to form, but it will take a while for these songs to seep into our cultural consciousness. What’s most obvious is that many of their strongest moments come from Folds’ most confessional songs. It’s hard to think of a modern singer-songwriter who has invested himself more fully in his music, and Folds has always used his personal life as raw material for his art. ‘Landed’, ‘Missing the War’ – and, of course, ‘Brick’ – all feel imbued with emotion, and the hush that falls over the crowd during the quieter moments is an indication of the respect they have for Folds’ painful honesty.

It’s in the nature of all great live shows that they end too soon, and the Ben Folds Five show in Seattle is no exception. If they’d kept playing into the small hours of the morning no one would have complained. But for a cold, gray Monday night in the Northwest, this was both a treat and a wake-up call. Ben Folds Five are definitely back – let’s hope it’s for good this time.

  • yep

    “I’m going to go ahead and say it: there isn’t a single song that Folds released during his solo career which lives up to the rest of the band’s output”

    you’re ridiculous
    BFF is incredible, but that’s too bold of a statement.

  • Saw BF5 in KC. It was 100 percent amazing.

  • Kizzle

    good review, but you’re an idiot…everything Ben did in his solo career lived up to the band…

  • Michael

    I’d like to say thanks to Jason Tang, the guy who took the photo for this review. I missed almost the entire show because you decided to snap some 200 photos and take countless videos of the entre performance. From what I could see through your camera, the show looked great. Thans again for being so considerate.

  • Jymbo

    Love most of what he’s done on his own as well. It’s every bit as good as the the band.

  • Rog

    Try ‘Not The Same’ from his solo LP Rockin’ The Suburbs. One of his best songs.

  • TuffyMcFuckelby

    I lost interest when you mentioned that none of his solo output was as good as BFF material. He had so many great solo songs, and Rockin’ the Suburbs is one of his best albums, period. Better, in fact, than The Sound of the Life of the Mind

    Do your homework!

  • Nick

    @2ff259562859efe844040053c750bcfc:disqus Don’t exaggerate, it detracts from your argument and makes you look like an idiot. Photographers are allowed to take pictures for only the first three songs in the pit, so you’re full of it when you call out Jason Tang. I was directly behind those against the barrier, and saw nothing like what you describe.

    What a fantastic show, and I was particularly impressed by the crowd, there wasn’t any shoving in the front, and during the quieter songs, everyone was listening intensely. I’ve been waiting since 1995 to make this night happen, and it did not disappoint in any way shape or form.