With Ben Folds Live, the good-humored pianist curated a live record that hit the hallmarks of any great concert: timeless singles (“Brick”, “One Angry Dwarf…”), non-album tracks (“One Down”, “Silver Street”), fun banter, a sing-along (“Army”), an unexpected cover (“Tiny Dancer”), and a duet with John McCrea (“Fred Jones, Pt. 2”). Unfortunately, where Ben Folds Live succeeded in capturing the genial, unpredictable atmosphere of a Folds concert, Live inopportunely fails.
The album was recorded during Ben Folds Five’s 2012-2013 reunion tour, which found them spanning four continents in support of The Sound of the Life of the Mind. “Jackson Cannery”, a highlight from the band’s 2005 self-titled release, boisterously kicks off what becomes a fairly predictable set list. Newbies from last year’s effort (“Erase Me”, “Do It Anyway”) gracefully intermingle with pleasing selections from their back catalogue (“Uncle Walter”, “Tom and Mary”), but the banter is distant and lackadaisical, with Folds only involving the audience during “Song for the Dumped”, the record’s closing track.
That isn’t to say there aren’t pleasures. Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee’s high-pitched backing vocals have always nudged Folds’ voice into the stratosphere, serving as a reminder that it’s their harmonies, perhaps more than their instrumentation, that separate a Ben Folds Five song from the singer’s solo efforts. Also of note is “Narcolepsy”, the sole entry from 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, which provides Sledge an opportunity to flex his formidable skills on the bass during an impromptu mid-song jam session.
As “Song for the Dumped” concludes, Folds declares his intent to play one more song before the record abruptly, curiously comes to a close. It seems fitting almost, considering Live consistently falls short of capturing the band’s historically raucous concerts, where Folds embraces you with his piano before commanding you to sing along. Speaking of, where’s “Army”? Seriously.
Essential Tracks: “Underground”, “Narcolepsy”, and “Sky High”