Ben Folds Five – Live (review)

Ben Folds Five – Live (Ima Vee Pee / Sony) review

The reunited trio captured in concert all around the world

Face it.  The majority of “live” albums aren’t really LIVE – they’ve been fixed in some way.  That’s why they sound so perfect.  We’ve grown so accustomed to this that when something comes along that isn’t pristine, we’re shocked.  If Live, the first concert album from the regrouped Ben Folds Five, isn’t live, you could’ve fooled me.  It’s an bones-and-all look at the band’s recent worldwide trek.

For one thing, the entire album sounds like it was recorded from the audience – there’s an airiness to these recordings, giving you a true feel for what it was like to be witness to this great band.  But, the biggest aspect is that it isn’t perfect – especially on the vocals.  There are times when the band isn’t pitch-perfect, but that’s what they honestly sound like in concert.  Take the angry kiss off “Erase Me” – Folds stretches his vocals to the limit to reach the falsetto in the song.  Then there’s “Draw a Crowd,” where Folds messes up at the beginning. Spontaneously, he says “keep the party going, even if the piano player can’t play,” before launching into a spirited version of the shoulda-been-a hit, complete with stunning background harmonies.

In this live environment, you also appreciate the trio as a band a lot more than on record.  Without a lead guitar, Robert Sledge ends up filling a lot of the void with his bass, while Darren Jessee’s drumming is really what propels the band to the point of frenzy.

The 15 tracks draw on the band’s entire career (only “Landed” comes from Folds’ solo work).  The three songs from their debut –  “Jackson Cannery,” “Uncle Walter,” and “Underground” –  still retain the same off-the-rails wildness from when the guys first recorded them, almost 20 years ago.  “Selfless, Cold and Composed” sure sounds like the soundtrack to a lost Peanuts TV special.

Of the newer material, “Sky High” really benefits from the live setting, while “Do It Anyway” oddly segues into a snippet from Jesus Christ Superstar.  In another moment of spontaneity, Folds grabs a portion of Miles Davis’ “Billie’s Bounce” – yet the band never misses a beat.

They save the best for the last – grabbing two songs from their breakout Whatever and Ever Amen – “One Angry Dwarf” and a blistering version of “Song For the Dumped” – appropriately ending the evening to a chorus of “gimme my money back / you bitch.”

If you were fortunate enough to catch the reunited band in concert, this is a great memento.  If not, this gives you an idea of what you missed.  –Tony Peters