BEN FOLDS FIVE
With Hotel Lights
Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008
UNC Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall
As soon as Ben Folds hurled his piano stool into the keys of the black Baldwin grand he sat behind for 80 minutes Thursday night, it was apparent that the set was finished. With the stool split into at least three pieces and the crowd swept into a tizzy after chanting "Give me my money back, you bitch" for the last few minutes, Folds, Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee—or Ben Folds Five, playing its first show in eight years—simply had to stop: Could any other song push the crowd harder than "Song for the Dumped"? Could any song left make the band seem younger, punchier, more energetic? And, really, if they'd continued, where the fuck would Folds have sat?
But the sell-out crowd of 1,200-plus refused to admit the one-off reunion was over. Even as music that wasn't Ben Folds Five pumped through the speakers and all of the house lights brightened, people moved their mouths and hands instead of their feet. As a crane-operated video camera hired by the show's producer, MySpace Music's new Front to Back series, panned over the crowd, people clapped, screamed and chanted for the band's return. It at least seemed like the night's loudest five minutes, and for good reason: During the hour-plus, Ben Folds Five had mostly nailed its final album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, performed in its entirety, and an encore of seven other songs.
They had featured horns and guests, loudness and stillness, electric fuzz and upright warmth, missing only a few cues and acting, generally, like close, old pals. But it was free of obvious choices like "Brick," "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces" and "Philosophy." For the crowd, it was a sampler too small, but so very satisfying.
Still, the evening wasn't without its awkward—or unbearable, as it was—moment: During Darren Jessee's exquisite seven-song opening set as Hotel Lights, people chatted, laughed and greeted old friends or new dorm mates as if no one was onstage, let alone a member of the band they'd paid $40 to see. Along with Richmond multi-instrumentalist Alan Weatherhead, Jessee played quietly and patiently, sounding his gentle songs into the big room with a steady, surprising confidence.
"Firecracker People," the title track off Hotel Lights' second album, was strong and stately; "Small Town Shit," the bittersweet centerpiece of his 2005 debut, never seemed so appropriate for its local lyrical references and bent sentimentality. Jessee now lives in Brooklyn, and this marked his first date in North Carolina in years. The crowd's conspicuous discontent stemmed from its (understandable) excitement for the main event, or, as likely, from ignorance of Jessee's role as more than the timekeeper for Ben Folds Five. Jessee wrote the chorus for "Brick," the song that drove Ben Folds Five into the mainstream, and his "Magic" is the tender rest during the first third of Messner. That same somber ease marked his performance Thursday night. Unfortunately, it went largely wasted on small-talk ears.
Yet the audience did respond to Ben Folds Five: From the manic dynamics of Messner opener "Narcolepsy" to the grand sweep of encore selection "Selfless, Cold & Composed," the band played with a mix of élan and composure that spoke less to this week's two or three days of rehearsal and more to the seven years they spent together on the road. Jessee's rolls and fills were taut and impactful, and—after not playing drums since the band broke up—he seemed mostly comfortable and energetic.
Sledge bounced around his third of the stage, switching between synthesizers and bass, smiling and waving at familiar faces in the crowd three times during the first verse of "Magic." Instead of treating the album like a sacred script, he exaggerated his noisy keyboard parts, smiling across the stage at Folds, who, at one point, screamed "Sledge 2008, y'all."
When the band had finished Messner, Sledge raised his hands high in the air in a V, grinning big to the booming crowd, his stomach flashing from the bottom of his shirt. Folds, who's been playing large halls and amphitheaters for most of the decade anyway, was his usual energetic and playful self. But his stories—which he saved for the seven-song encore and limited as the band churned through the album in a brisk 43 minutes—took on an appropriately historical bent: He talked about Bobby Patterson's video of the Five fitting its baby grand into Chapel Hill's Local 506 in the early '90s and the decision to record the first album in Hillsborough for $5,000 after squandering a bigger budget in a nicer Philadelphia room. He invited his dad, Dean Folds, onstage to read "Your Most Valuable Possession." And he thanked the four-piece horn section, led by ex-Countdown Quartet saxophonist Peter Lamb, for its help.
Indeed, the focus wasn't the dropped second verse of "Regrets," which Folds shrugged off with a smile to Sledge, or the unsure rhythm at the start of "Where's Summer B.?" Instead, it was the feeling that this was a special chance to reconnect—for the band, for the audience, for musicians in the crowd who used to share stages with Ben Folds Five. And, even without a second encore, even without at least some of the hits, it didn't disappoint a bit.
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
"Don't Change Your Plans"
"Your Redneck Past"
"Your Most Valuable Possession"
[Break for three minutes]
"Selfless, Cold & Composed"
"Battle of Who Could Care Less"
"Where's Summer B.?"
"Song for the Dumped"