I never saw Ben Folds Five in concert before the trio’s breakup in 2000, other than their outstanding 1997 performance captured on the DVD The Complete Sessions at West 54th. But in catching Folds three times as a solo artist since 2006 (always with a backing band), I came away each time feeling like his shows didn’t possess the collaborative spirit and intensity that the Sessions performance did. But with Ben Folds Five now back together after 12 years apart, and touring behind their 2012 comeback release The Sound of the Life of the Mind, they still maintain that same synergy.
Folds remains a piano-pop genius based in Tin Pan Alley, crafting tunes that are mostly irreverent but often heartbreaking, sometimes containing both elements. At times the show felt like a recital, with fans hushed during the delicate “Thank You for Breaking My Heart” and 1997 hit “Brick,” while up-tempo rockers “Battle of Who Could Care Less” and “Do It Anyway” gave the show a piano-fueled punk dynamic. And newer songs such as show opener “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” and ivory tickler “Draw a Crowd” fit seamlessly alongside ’90s fan favorites such as “Philosophy,” “Kate” and “Song for the Dumped.”
Folds displayed both his sense of humor and his musical proficiency on the always-improvised “Rock This Bitch,” this time performing it as a pulsating Krautrock track while singing in German gibberish. Drummer Darren Jessee showed his dexterity, heightening “Selfless, Cold and Composed” with jazzy precision and giving “Do It Anyway” a rockabilly shuffle, while bassist Robert Sledge was the unsung hero of the evening, his fuzzy tone and rhythmic playing enhancing rocker “Erase Me” before switching to cello for the ballad “Sky High.” And both backing musicians blended wonderfully with Folds on three-part harmonies throughout the show, most notably during “Missing the War” and encore “Underground,” confirming that their union still produces a winning formula. ★★★★☆