“I set out to have a piano band that rocked,” Ben Folds said of his band recently on Direct TV’s Guitar Center Sessions. He credits Nirvana with opening the doors for a band like his to make it on the scene, allowing him to carry an acoustic baby grand into punk clubs. And although he’s often billed as a pop act, Folds says his music has as much in common with jazz as it does with pop. “We’re a floating island,” Folds says. Together again after a 12 year separation, Ben Folds Five Band floats its first live album, an eclectic collection culled from shows all over the world in support of last year’s The Sound of the Life of the Mind.
Folds gets things rockin’ with “Jackson Cannery,” full of Billy Joel licks, backed by a hard rock rhythm section that gets as big a response from the audience at the Warfield in San Francisco as if it’d been an arena full of Joel fans.
Four of the cuts, “Sky High,” “Erase Me,” “Do it Anyway,” and “Draw A Crowd” are from last year’s release. There are few surprises in the live performance. “Sky High” is delivered a bit more softly live than on record, but “Erase Me” sounds note for note like the studio version. “Do it Anyway” sounds a bit more lively at the 02 Academy in London, rocking harder with more punch than the record. “Draw A Crowd” has a surreal moment a few bars in, Folds telling the crowd to “keep the party going on, even if the piano player can’t play,” getting them to clap along with the rhythm section till he regains his composure and jumps back in.
’97’s Whatever and Ever Amen contributes four more: “Brick,” “Song For the Dumped,” “One Angry Dwarf And Two Hundred Solemn Faces,” and “Selfless, Cold, and Composed.” But once again there’s not much difference in these and the studio versions.
Ironically, the most intriguing cut is Folds’ made up on the spot rendition of “One Chord Blues/Billie’s Bounce.” “Whoaa… I don’t know what the fuck I’m gonna sing,” Folds moans over a woke up this morning, 12-bar blues piano riff, “some fuckin’ bullshit.” Folds admits he’s got nothing fancy going on this time around: “I always write 17 chords in complicated keys, I’m just gonna play this chord all night,” he sings, then proceeds to do anything but that, tossing in a handful of crashing classical licks, running up the keyboard on a pentatonic scale that disintegrates into raggedy bebop before finally collapsing into a sweaty, soulful r&b heap with a falsetto Ray Charles vocal finish.
Casual listeners will probably wish Folds had used his obviously impressive improvising skills a bit more. But as the audience reaction here indicates and die hard fans will undoubtedly concur with, anything that floats their boat out to Folds island is a good trip.