Front to back, and a little bit more: Ben Folds Five reunites in Chapel Hill

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One song into Ben Folds Five's first show in eight years, the regrets were already pooling up. "If I'd known about this gig, I'd have sequenced the album differently," Folds heaved, grabbing for a water bottle as the last notes of "Narcolepsy" were swallowed by the crowd's applause. Fair enough: The song works beautifully as the opener of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, the band's last album, which they played in its entirety last night at UNC Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall at the behest of MySpace and for the benefit of Operation Smile. But in terms of ideal set-list artistry, it would probably be slotted towards the end of the night, allowing its performers to ease in to its crashing highs and lows with some less manic fare. For a band that hadn't performed together in upwards of eight years, minus the rehearsals they surely held in preparation for last night, it was an ambitious public re-debut.

Not that the crowd really noticed-- or cared-- about the somewhat rusty start. Most, it seemed, were just glad it was starting at all.

Drummer Darren Jessee's Hotel Lights combo was poorly received as an opener. His hushed acoustic songs were met with polite applause and a few shouts of "We miss you, Darren!" from those who recognized him, many of whose ears perked up for the spry rendition of "Amelia Bright" he dedicated to Ben and Robert. (Not exactly how I thought it would happen-- I thought they'd play it for an encore, as it was one of the new tracks they were playing live right before they broke up-- but I consider prediction #3 fulfilled.) But most didn't seem to know who he was, making it rude, or didn't seem to care, making it rude and baffling, considering how most everyone there had either camped out or paid extreme amounts of money for scalped tickets to see the band that he's one-third of. The chatter often swelled to such a pitch that it was easier to hear the intricacies of the conversations around me than the delicate music on stage, and it swelled as the crowd grew. I finally gave up straining out the buzz and resigned myself to eavesdropping on the conversation of the girls sitting behind me, which turned from the traumas of applying to ivy league med schools as a state university student to a discussion of whether or not they should do "the wave" to make the set more interesting. They eventually decided against it. Wise choice, ladies!

But after "Narcolepsy," as the band queued up "Don't Change Your Plans," the reality fully sank in: This was really happening. The faded, decade-old Ben Folds Five t-shirts that clothed a quarter of the crowd had not been saved for naught. The tickets hadn't been bought on eBay for $400 a pop for nothing. In a matter of two weeks, this had gone from a much-hoped-for but laughably distant possibility, to an absolute reality unfolding before our very eyes, with the swooping camera-on-a-crane serving as a constant, perilous reminder of the events' benefactors. MySpace, I salute you. I will look upon all those Zwinky adds and friend requests from porn stars that bombard me with each log-in to your site with slightly less-intense hatred from now on.

Somehow, the presence of a horn section was sorely absent from my predictions yesterday, and I didn't really think about it until pre-show chatter among fans brought up the possibility of John Mark Painter and company making a return. But the presence of three lone mic stands and monitors to the back left of Folds' Baldwin indicated it was a possibility. As it turned out, it wasn't Painter or any of the album's original players, but three young guys-- Chapel Hill students, I'm assuming-- who took the stage midway through "Don't Change Your Plans" to a gleeful reception. A blonde trumpeter took the stage, front and center, for a solo that was complicated by his evident nerves and a huge, goofy grin that kept creeping across his face. I'm willing to bet he was wearing a faded, maroon-and-yellow Ben Folds Five tee under his black dress shirt and slacks. Trumpeter guy, you win.

"Mess" was a lovely swirl and "Magic," one of my favorites from the album, was also one of my favorites from the night, boosted by the sheer awesomeness of the combined twenty-or-so seconds worth of Darren Jessee thwomping on those two giant drums (pardon my complete lack of musical instrument vocabulary) that seem to exist solely for that song. The "Silas Creek Parkway" line in "Hospital Song" got scattered hoots and hollers from the Winston-Salemites in the crowd.

And then came "Army."

I'd sound like a pretty huge asshole if I went on and on about my feelings about this song, so, to save us all from that, let me just say that I kind of hate it. And, okay, I don't so much hate the song itself, just sheer schtick that's grown up around it, but that dislike is so intense that it feeds back into an actual dislike of the song. I've tried to make an exception to my near-universal dislike of "audience participation" for it, but my patience has long faded. Sure, I thought it was brilliant when I first heard how they'd split the crowd into sections and have them sing the horn parts. And I was giddy when I got to do it for the first time myself. But that was a while ago. It feels old, now, and forced. Not special. Also, I love the real horns, which no forced audience sing-along can replace.

Fortunately, last night, it wasn't a problem: The college guys came out again and blasted away (as, yes, most of the crowd sang along to the instrumental part). And then there was Robert Sledge's bass solo, which, to my knowledge, a vocal replication of has never been attempted, thank God. It's the absolute highlight of the song, soaring and fuzzy and triumphant-- it's what I miss most, maybe even moreso than those horns, when Ben Folds plays it live by himself. Last night-- with "God, please spare me more rejection!" as the only sanctioned bit of "audience participation"-- the song was absolved of all its sins. I'm not saying I'll ever willingly participate in its now-standard live rendition any time soon. But I'll cringe a little less, if I have to.

After "Your Redneck Past"-- which got a huge, warm cheer when Folds sang "it's good to be back home"-- he stopped to chat with the crowd a bit, but was soon overpowered by a barrage of song requests. "'Rock This Bitch'!" someone yelled from the balcony, yielding a puzzled stare and a dismissal from Folds: "Naw, that's my old shit." Despite the fact that we were hardly past Reinhold Messner's midpoint, the supplications dragged on and on until it became clear that there was some sort of delay other than belligerent fans who missed the "front to back" memo. Then, finally, my dad walked out on stage. Only it wasn't mine, it was Ben Folds', but he sure looked like mine in khakis, a t-shirt and a baseball hat. The shouted requests devolved into cheering and screaming, as prediction #1 came true: Smiling nervously and reading off a piece of paper he held in his bands, Dean Folds recreated that so very sleepy answering machine message he once left for his son, which became "Your Most Valuable Possession," a strange tale of space launches, lost body mass and convoluted father-son-advice, as the band joined in on the jazzy instrumental backup.

"Regrets" followed with the only true flub of the night-- Folds forgot the line about his grandma-- but slipped easily into "Jane," easily one of the band's most effective forays into earnestness. (I'm not sure they could have left my high-school self with any better consolation than "you're worried there might not be anything at all inside / that you're worried should tell you that's not right.") And then, with a return of the horn section, they plodded into "Lullabye," with the horn guys leading gospel-y hand claps on the slow-slung instrumental bridge. And just as "Narcolepsy" technically wasn't the best choice for a set opener, neither was this an ideal set closer. If this had been any other show, they may have swapped the two-- or not played "Lullabye" at all. Yet the song is, in a sense, the last we heard from the band, the final track of their final album. Too soft and dreamy to send a crowd out into the night, but so nearly perfect as a swan-song that I've always wondered if they knew, even then, that there wouldn't be another record, that their parting gift, their parting words, would be "let the moonlight take the lid off your dreams."

But maybe not. Maybe, just like last night, they knew it wouldn't be the last song, even as they waved and smiled and headed off the stage. In a matter of minutes, they were back with the encore I-- we all-- knew was coming (prediction #2, check!). In stark contrast to "Lullabye," first up was "Jackson Cannery," the notably less demure first track of their first album. And surprisngly, most of the crowd-- who I'd pegged, fairly or unfairly, as Ben Folds solo devotees taking advantage of their student ticket privileges, rather than studied Ben Folds Five fans-- knew the words, erupting into a fresh flurry of singing along and generally rocking out that the Reinhold set hadn't afforded.

Next, though, was a song that I couldn't place until the second line of lyrics. I hadn't listened to "Eddie Walker" in years, hadn't even thought about listening to it, and it struck me like a blow to the gut. And I wasn't the only one: I heard multiple gasps from the crowd around me as everyone realized what it was. I don't know if they often played it live when they toured-- of the many realizations I had last night, not the least of which is that I had no substantial frame of reference to which to compare this live show versus any of their past ones-- but it always struck me as a special kind of song that wouldn't be pulled out as live fodder too often. I loved it before I forgot it, felt a lump in my throat as it came rushing back to me, and then found myself singing through the lump, singing along, the words I didn't know I even remembered falling out of my mouth like reciting a childhood address or the name of an old friend or any other number of things you don't know you know, don't even know any more the full meaning of, but find yourself reciting without strain or effort. To be so thoroughly surprised like that, so caught off-guard, in the midst of an event I'd hoped for for years and actively anticipated for weeks, was startling and wonderful.

Far as I'm concerned, it was the only real curve-ball of the night. "Selfless, Cold and Composed" was next, followed by "Battle of Who Could Care Less," the "W" hands popping up everywhere along with "whatever and ever, amen." "Where's Summer B.?" seemed like an odd choice to me-- it's never been one of my favorites-- but "Julianne" was thrashy and mad and great, though I would have loved to hear the "folky, pot-smoking version" Folds mentioned they recorded (and shelved) over a decade ago. "Song for the Dumped" rounded out the night, and much like "Army" was redeemed in my eyes: Like the audience-as-horn-section, Folds' pounding and tweaking piano-string breakdown on his solo live version of the song has always felt a little empty, and while I've always appreciated his seeming unwillingness to recreate the band's sound exactly during his live shows, that act in particular has grown a bit tired. Seeing the full band dive head-first into the madness together once more only reinforced that, and led to my first real twinge of nostalgia all night.

At the end, as has come to be expected from him by now, Folds stood up from his knee-forward crouch at his Baldwin, picked up his piano stool with one hand, walked back a few paces, then looked out at us, shrugged, and tossed the stool onto the keys. It thumped, bounced back, and clattered to the floor as he and his bandmates waved once more, smiled and bowed and exited the stage as the cheering and clapping swelled to an ear-pounding din. I could see but not hear some guys on the front row of the balcony shouting "Ben Folds Five! Ben Folds Five!" while the college sophomorish group in the row in front of me really showed their hand as they started chanting, "Ben! Ben! Ben!" The lights went up and the camera crew began rolling cables, but then the lights went down again and-- oh wait, no, then up again, then the stage lights came on and the roadies emerged to requisite, healthy boos.

A crowd still lingered at their seats as the lights came all the way up, but I headed out of the venue, less optimistic about the band's reemergence. Outside, the noise of the crowd spilling out of the theater behind me eclipsed the cicadas' droning, and the moon hung in a luminous haze above the campus. Let the moonlight take the lid of your dreams, indeed.

PS: Hello to fan and next-door-seat-neighbor Kristen, who contributed to the absolute strangest moment of my life last night when, after a few minutes of small-talk while waiting for the show to start, she asked, completely offhandedly, "Did you read the Paste article?" Meaning, the blog post I wrote yesterday morning. For some reason, I felt like I was completely bullshitting her when I gulped and said, "Um, I wrote that," so just in case, here is proof!

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