For longtime fans of singer/songwriter Ben Folds and his once-dormant pop-rock band Ben Folds Five—and especially for those who were late to the party and didn’t discover the group until after they’d disbanded—one of the more exciting things about the band’s reunion in 2011, even more so than the release of a whole album full of new material, was the chance to see (and hear) some of the band’s classic songs performed live again by the original trio.
So, now that the reunion has happened, the band has thoughtfully put together a compilation of 15 live tracks from various venues during the 2012-2013 tour in support of their latest album, 2012’s The Sound of the Life of the Mind. The collection, straightforwardly titled Ben Folds Five Live, is a pretty solid release that should satisfy the band’s core fanbase, although ultimately, it is unable to really capture the spirit and energy that Folds is known for in his live performances—meaning it wouldn’t be a suitable replacement for actually seeing the group in person.
Not surprisingly, Ben Folds Five Live is heavy on new material, with four of the 15 tracks coming off of The Sound of the Life of the Mind (the group’s most noteworthy album, Whatever and Ever Amen, also adds four songs into the mix, meaning over half of the tracks are from those two albums alone). Some of these new songs translate live better than others, at least on these recordings; for instance, the fuzzy, distorted bass on “Erase Me” sounds far more muddled in the live version and almost overpowers Ben and his piano at times, while the rapid-fire piano intro and noisy energy of the single “Do It Anyway” are perfectly expressed (and clearly well-rehearsed), showing all three members in top form as performers, even if the recording itself is a bit jumbled at times.
One of the more interesting moments of the collection is the eighth track, which is an improvised piano-based blues number recorded at The Wiltern in Los Angeles. Simply named “One Chord Blues/Billie’s Bounce,” the song features Folds singing cleverly improvised lines like, “I don’t know what I’m gonna sing/Some bullshit,” as he continually plays—you guessed it—a single piano chord in a traditional blues-style rhythm, with bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee improvising behind him. The track is a welcome inclusion on the collection, as it adds a nice bit of variety to the album and showcases Folds’ trademark humor in the process.
But also not surprisingly, three of the standout songs on the album come from Whatever and Ever Amen, particularly “Brick,” which is still probably the band’s most popular (and arguably best) song. Despite the fact that it’s pretty depressing, you can hear the crowd at The Warfield in San Francisco get audibly excited when Folds starts playing those familiar introductory notes on the piano. And not only is the song itself great, but the recording quality on this particular track is maybe the best on the whole album; Folds’ excellent vocal performance sounds stellar and resonates particularly well (especially the way his voice breaks during the first chorus), and Sledge’s bass sounds full and powerful, without drowning everybody else out. Mostly, this track is one of the most evenly mixed on the album, which is the largest problem with most of the recordings on Ben Folds Five Live.
The album ends with two of the group’s other popular songs off of Whatever and Ever Amen, “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” and “Song for the Dumped,” respectively, which also turn out great performances from the whole band.
Probably the most noteworthy track not included on the album is “Army,” off of their 1999 album The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, a longtime fan favorite and a song they played nearly every night on tour, often in the encore. Missing songs like that (especially since the Ben Folds solo song “Landed” was included) and a slightly lackluster recording quality on a couple of the tracks keep Ben Folds Five Live from feeling like the band’s definitive live album, despite its name, but the collection also features a few strong moments and interesting takes on both old and new songs that make it a worthwhile collector’s item, or just a nice change of pace for the casual Ben Folds fan.