The PNC Arts Center, in Holmdel, NJ, is an outdoor rotunda, albeit one with a roof above, so while a guest would be protected from some of the elements, they would not be protected from all of them. The famous New Jersey humidity, when paired with 90+ degree heat, was an ever-present factor and the threat of severe thunderstorms (which never fully consummated) all posed the question, “Was this trip necessary”?
Aside from the good company and welcomed conversations among all attendees, ruminating on their mutual musical obsessions, the performance by Ben Folds Five was not to be missed. Holmes and Dunphy elaborate:
Dunphy: Well, if we have to assign “winners” for the evening, it has to be Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse because they both easily proved why this trio combination works in a way that Folds’ other combos didn’t. Beyond that, Sledge has moved up very high on the list of “Best Bassists In Rock/Pop,” showing a sort of dexterity that was jaw-dropping.
Holmes: Yes and hell yes. I think there’s something about great trios with a nominal leader, where you tend to undervalue the contributions of the “other” two guys until they’re not around anymore. As talented as Ben Folds is on multiple instruments — something he’s proven over the course of his solo career — the unique talents and voices of Sledge and Jessee are what transform the Five into something much better.
Dunphy: Exactly. I know I broke into dumb smiles whenever they locked into a harmony part.
One of the things that, nonetheless, irked me was that they gave the audience the songs that were expected. I don’t just mean “Brick” because at this stage you are stuck with it, but there was only one Reinhold Messner song, it was “Army.” There were no curve balls, not even the integration of Ben’s “Landed” in the set which is also on the recent Ben Folds Five Live album. So if I have to gripe about things, that’s it.
But what they did with those songs was wonderful. The sudden break-outs into real jazz improvisations versus jammy noodling, the cohesion among the members, was a very good experience.
Holmes: I have to chalk up the rather safe setlist to the fact that they were an opening act but yes, I too was disappointed in the lack of Messner songs. My fervent hope is that if this reunion sticks, then they might hit the clubs and bigger indoor venues next time around and spread the wealth a bit.
Shall we take a small diversion and talk about the only other band we watched perform during the evening?
Dunphy: Sure. Guster was…well, they were Guster. But they apparently trucked in their entire entourage to stock the seats. I’d never expect such a hardcore Guster contingent.
Holmes: I’m sure they’re all perfectly nice guys and their longevity is to be admired, but I’ll just say it: They make boring music for boring people. So, back on topic. Favorite songs from the set?
Dunphy: Well, before we run off from this, let me say one thing about this tour’s lineup. On paper, it looks like a perfect match. Three bands, affable, often humorous, who had their peak of success in the 1990s. I don’t think I’m being particularly out of line to assert they skew to a very white, rather suburban demographic who were probably of college age (maybe a tad younger) when they experienced them first.
In the actual setting though, the differences were very apparent. Guster and Barenaked Ladies (which I hung in to watch) were fun, I’ll give them all the credit for doing their best to be crowd-pleasing and very upbeat. They are all very talented musicians, but they work in a strictly pop/rock context, and so personality winds up carrying the through-line.
Ben Folds Five came on with something very much to prove. That was deeply apparent in their renditions of songs that could have just flown by unchanged and the crowd would have bopped along and been satisfied. So a song like “Song For The Dumped,” which has become over time a somewhat cold, snarky complaint with a tinge of petulance, breaks down into the instrumental portion into something altogether different. We were going on this visceral, angry thread but now we’re going over…here. And it works.
So to double back on my point, those who came for Guster and or Barenaked Ladies primarily went home very happy. But by being on the bill with BF5 which were working on an entirely different plain from them, it wound up being a really obvious mismatch, on-paper descriptors be damned.
Holmes: So being a relative BNL newbie, what’s your take on the band sans Page?
Dunphy: It was good, but as you had mentioned on the day (and feared) there was a high quotient of schtick involved, and that was annoying…but the crowd ate it up. They performed the songs quite well. But like all the acts, they did things that were expected, often to the overall detriment.
The #2 song I did not want to hear was inevitably “One Week,” but it had to be played. That was unavoidable. They preceded the song by kicking in with Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House” and I was thinking to myself how much cooler it would have been if they just did that straight through. But like I said, for those who came for Barenaked Ladies, to not have played the song would have caused the fans disappointment.
The #1 song I didn’t want to hear…(sigh). Okay, I’m going to sound pretentious and “rockist” and all, but there was no good reason for them to do the Big Bang Theory theme, but they did. I guess just have zero tolerance for theme songs. It probably stems from my childhood experience with Joey Scarbury’s “The Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not).”
Holmes: Oh God, did they really do the Big Bang Theory theme? That’s fucking weak. All of a sudden I’m glad I left early.
Dunphy: Back to your original question, there were two standout moments for me, and both came off of tracks from The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind. “Do It Anyway” while sounding like this light trifle of a tune is physically demanding, and you saw that from Ben Folds Five. Sledge was hammering on his bass like a standard electric guitar. That’s his biggest strength in that he can play the jazz side handily, but when it is time to throw down, he’s not a bassist. He’s a guitarist that picked up a bass. There’s a distinction to be had there.
Secondly, “Sky High” is a gorgeous song, and if I couldn’t get “Magic” from them, I’m glad I got this.
Holmes: I loved hearing “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” and “Erase Me” off the new album. They are the two best songs and the guys seemed to really put everything they had into them. “Alice Childress” was also great, even though I’ve never been a huge fan of that song. I also enjoyed the opportunity to once again provide the horn section for “Army.”
I’m checking out their set lists from previous tour stops and it seems they’ve been playing “Missing the War” a lot. I would’ve loved to hear that, particularly the vocal harmonies.
I guess really the only qualm I had with BF5 was that because they didn’t headline they had to play a rather economical set. When that’s your biggest complaint coming out of a show, you did alright. Especially since we were able to upgrade to some pretty sweet seats for $10 just before the concert started.
Dunphy: Very true. Let’s reiterate to the readers that it was 90+ degrees (yes, I was wearing a sweater and a jean jacket because when I go, I GO HARD) and there was a threat all day long of thunder showers that night. That might have contributed to the empties, or maybe the prices for the best seats were ridiculous. So the auditorium was looking at a heck of a lot of empty seats going in. Our tickers were for the lawn seats which aren’t bad at PNC (lots of monitors available for the back row). But for the added $10, we were bumped up to orchestra seats about 6-8 rows from the stage. That’s a deal.
2. Michael Praytor, Five Years Later
3. Alice Childress
4. Erase Me
7. Sky High
8. Do It Anyway
10. Song For The Dumped
So the consensus is that if you are a Ben Folds Five fan, you really should catch whatever remains of them on the Last Summer On Earth tour, even if you choose not to take in the rest of the bands’ performances. If you do decide to stay, understand that you will get what you expect, for better or worse. It is still a high recommendation for anyone interested in seeing three individuals performing at a level of musicality that is frequently lost or disregarded. Ben Folds Five, after all these years away, is more mature but they’re bringing old and new material that can confidently coexist side-by-side.
Want more? Check out the Platters That Matter podcast of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner by clicking here.
Special thanks to fellow Popdose concertgoer Mike Duquette for verification of the setlist order.