I first became interested in Ben Folds Five in the 1990’s when the wonderful, but now defunct GLR (BBC Greater London Radio) played them regularly. It wasn’t until 2006 that I finally got round to buying “Whatever and Ever Amen” and I didn’t stop playing it for about a year. I don’t think I’ve ever played an album so many times without getting bored of it since Prefab Sprout’s debut album, Swoon. After that year I decided to spread my wings and filled my album collection with as much of the back catalogue as I could lay my hands on. It’s pretty much all brilliant. Songs for Silver is probably my favourite with The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner being my least played album.
My son loves much of my music collection and very soon BFF became his firm favourite too. The band had split 13 years ago when Will was just a baby and although Ben had produced a great swath of superb music on his own over that time, as soon as the band reformed and announced a reunion tour I knew we had to go.
I sat on the tickets for months, wanting to keep the gig a surprise. On Friday 23 November 2012 we drove in to Bristol, Will still having no idea what was going on. We drove past a bowling alley. “Are we going bowling?”, he asked. I could see him thinking, “Please don’t let it be bowling”. As we turned the corner past the touts to the entrance of the venue I was expecting a hoarding saying something like “Ben Folds Five – tonight only”, but there was nothing, but he was blown away when I pulled out the tickets. I was very pleasantly surprised by the venue. It was nice and compact. I went to many hundreds of gigs in my younger days and I always disliked big venues. I remember going to the Jam’s farewell gig at Wembly Arena and all I could hear was the guy next to me singing along. I’m all for singing along, but I want to hear the artist, not some out of tune fan. I should also say that the staff were great. I don’t ever remember being welcomed by security when they were just walking past. Well done Bristol O2 Academy.
The support act were Bitter Ruin, which wasn’t my thing at all, but it was short and sweet.
I was pleasantly surprised when the inimitable Ben Folds along with Darren Jesse (drums) and Robert Sledge (bass) walked on to great applause at 8pm. I’ve never been to such an early (evening) gig in my life, but that’s great. Probably an age thing. The band started with Michael Praytor, probably the most BFF sounding track on the new album. The bouncing bass with trademark distortion and the great harmony “oh-oh-oh” vocals of the intro are unmistakeable BFF even if you’ve heard none of their music for 13 years. One thing I was not expecting was the number of cameras and phones being used to capture the event. I wish I had known as I foolishly believed the venue blurb that said they were not allowed.
After the initial new song we went into a run of vintage BFF. Some of my favourites that I never expected to hear live, like Selfless, Cold and Composed, Brick and Philosophy. Ben is well known for his ability to improvise and contruct songs on the spur of the moment and tonight was no different. He told us that when he comes to Bristol he always takes a photo of Coleston Avenue Toilets and tweets it to his friend @SamSmyth. It’s like an in-joke. He hadn’t had time to do it on this visit, so asked if we would. I got a reply tweet from the man himself. He’s one crazy dude!He then went into a fantastic Beatle-esk song about Coleston Avenue Toilets, what he wanted us to do, his trip back to the hotel etc. It’s the sort of thing that many artist would spend hours working on, but the notes and words just spill out simultaneously, while Robert and Darren join in. This is the replacement for the years of “Rock this bitch” that Ben had performed. If you’re not familiar with the story, a guy yelled out the legendary words at a gig. Ben’s imagination was captured and he made up a song on the spot about the guy and the evening’s events. After that Rock this bitch was probably the most requested song, with a new song in a different musical style being played at every gig, be it disco, C&W, polka or even metal. Later Ben appologised for not playing in Wales (we live 1 mile from Wales) and when someone called out a request to come to Wales he dived into another impromtu bumble of “When are we coming to Wales”. Brilliant.
The only non-BFF song was the brilliant Landed, which is from Ben’s more recent solo career. How the single was never a hit in the UK remains a mystery to me.
I won’t go on about the standard of musicianship as everyone who knows BFF will know all three members are outstanding musicians and the harmony vocals are amazing. I know the story goes that they thought Ben Folds Five just sounded a good name, but if you were blindfolded you would guess that there were at least five people on stage rather that just a trio. The beauty of the small venue (and being tall) is that you can see every detail and I particularly loved watching Ben rocking out.
The main set finished with some great audience participation in Army and then a predictable encore of Song for the Dumped (the audience enjoying the chant of “F**k you too”) and Underground. After the opening unaccompanied lines from Darren and Robert, “I was never cool at school, prehaps you don’t remember me”, someone always shouts out “Who the f**k are you?” It’s like BFF law. I was a little surprised that there was no “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” as it’s such a popular song.
The set list couldn’t have been much more to my taste if I had picked it myself. I would love to have heard Theme from Dr. Pyser, Emaline and Eddie Walker, but I certainly can’t complain. I know I’ve not been to gigs for a long time, but we both enjoyed this so much we can’t wait until Ben (and hopefully Darren and Robert) come and visit the UK again.
11/10 and all such other clichés. My son will certainly remember his first gig forever!
There are plenty of videos of the gig available. This is probably the best shot video. The guy that took it must have been standing right in front of us too.
Michael Praytor, five year later
Missing the war
Hold that thought
Selfless, cold and composed
Draw a crowd
Battle of who could care less
Coleston Avenue toilet chat
Coleston Avenue improvisation
Do it anyway
Tom And Mary
Coming to Wales improvisation
— encore —
Song for the dumped