Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Still Fighting It

Ben Folds @ Radio City Music Hall 11/7/05
First and foremost, I'm sorry that this review is so late. This was my 4th night out in 5 days and to be honest, I probably wouldn't have gone to see this show (despite the fact that Folds is a long-time favorite artist of mine) if I didn't buy the tickets as a birthday present to my friend and co-worker Sue, who's an even bigger fan of Ben than I am.

And why not? Well for starters, I've seen Ben both with Ben Folds Five and solo at least a dozen times (no exagerration) over the years since Whatever and Ever Amen came out and made me a fan and though he always puts on a great show (the 2 times I've seen him solo at Bowery Ballroom and the show at the Beacon with Joe Jackson on hand for a few songs have been especially memorable), his new album Songs for Silverman (which came out earlier this year) was a major letdown. Gone are the fiery sparks of humor and the big hooks of yore, replaced by the feeling that he's mellowed out and lost his sense of humor (and penchant for said big hooks and melodies that stick in your head for days).

With all that said, I was still looking forward to seeing this show because it's still Ben, I hadn't seen him play in over a year and because he has a knack for rearranging material in concert to make it sound shockingly superior to the recorded versions. I was also looking forward to it because I knew he'd be playing with a band and I hadn't seen him play with one in over 4 years, the last time being when he played with a full band at Town Hall right after the release of his 1st solo album Rockin' the Suburbs.

So after missing the opener (whose name escapes me at the moment), we got there at a little before 9 (after a tasty meal at Yum, a dependable no-frills Thai restaurant located amidst a sea of overpriced tourist traps) and Ben went on promptly at 9:15 or so. Backed by only a bassist and drummer (how Ben Folds Five-like, though in reality the show reminded me more of when I saw Joe Jackson play 2 small club shows back in 1999 backed by only Graham Maby on bass and Gary Burke on drums), Ben played until exactly 11:00 PM (he said he would be fined $20,000 if he played 1 minute over that time since there was a curfew). The 1st half of the set, consisting of him playing with the band, covered much of the new album, the 3 subsequent eps and his 1st solo album and I have to say that the live versions far surpassed the album versions in many cases, especially on the new material. It was during the 2nd half of the show, however, that it really became transcendent. The band left and Ben played solo, delivering a harrowing version of "Lullabye" (from the overlooked 1999 Ben Folds Five swan song The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner) that absolutely slayed me and destroyed the much more tame version that closed the album. In addition, songs like that album's fantastic "Don't Change Your Plans" and "The Ascent of Stan" (from Rockin' the Suburbs) received the solo treatment to fantastic results. After a few more songs in the same mold, the band came out again and it became a greatest hits set of sort with well-known tunes like the solemn "Brick", "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces" (both from Whatever and Ever Amen) and the closer Army" (complete with audience sing-along).

All in all, this was a fantastic show that restored my faith in one of my favorite performers. Furthermore, I have to add that this is by far the largest venue I've ever seen Ben perform in. It's telling that almost a decade after his only real hit, he's more popular as a live performer than ever. He's been able to fashion a career out of writing great, memorable songs that have a personal perspective on all facets of life ranging from the personal (the aforementioned "Brick") to the explicity political ("All You Can Eat") and people have clearly responded to it, so more power to him.


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