Close Encounters of the Ben Folds Five Kind

Photoshot/Everett Collection
Review and Interview by Kristen Wenzel 

“200 Hertz” 

This is the response of Mr. Ben Folds, when asked what Scottish fans could expect on their forthcoming tour at the end of 1998. But more on that later….

Arriving at the Sunshine Theatre in sunny Albuquerque, New Mexico, I immediately found myself wondering if I was at the right venue.  The fresh-faced young crowd looked like they had stepped out of a “Party of Five” episode.  Was this a Sugar Ray or Smash mouth concert???  Of course, my companion Amanda and I had arrived somewhat early due to our 3 ½ hour drive from the eastern edge of the state.  Within the hour, I relaxed as a representative demographic of various age fans began arriving.

My next concern was investigating the possibility of obtaining alcoholic beverages on the premises….wait, I mean interviewing the band.  I entered the venue and was directed towards the tour manager, busily selling t-shirts at the merchandise booth.  A little birdie had told me that one of BFF’s managers had been a member of the Barnstormers, the band of former Alarm guitarist Dave Sharp.  Using my most self-assured, I’m-too-hip-too-really-care attitude, I asked him if this was indeed true.  He looked at me blankly and I was immediately suffering flashbacks of a 13 year-old gawky girl with a silly fedora hat (yours truly) trying to carry on a conversation with Big Country at a show in Austin, Texas in 1983.  I stumbled momentarily and explained my purpose as a correspondent for the coolest fanzine of Scotland, Scotland Calling.  The harried tour manager took the proffered card I timidly offered and rambled off a list of publicity contacts and the unfortunate fact that the band was departing for Phoenix, Arizona that very night.  Departing Tour Bus=No Interview, so I accepted fate and headed for the bar.

Opening acts often get the shaft in that the venue is still filling, people are chatting, and reviewers often ignore you.  I very much would like to be an exception to that latter statement and provide you with a detailed account of Jude’s performance.  Unfortunately,  your dedicated correspondent was drinking some horrible concoction that the bartender called “Caribbean Kiss” (as far as I could tell, the drink consisted of many different flavored-liquors).  Seriously, being the ageing music fan from the boonies, I was not familiar with the music of this Los Angeles artist.  However, I quite enjoyed the relaxed, free-form flow of his melodic tunes.  Jude had a simple backing band, which was all that was needed to compliment his marvellous voice.  I plan on picking up his cd, “No One is Really Beautiful” (www.maverickrc.com/jude/).   The band had an acoustic, jazzy, and slightly funky groove (I know, gimme a break, I didn’t go to rock critic school), which was well-received by the audience and set an upbeat-but-serious tone for the evening.  His set lasted approximately three drinks for the record.

Ben Folds Five hit the stage shortly after.  I have to admit that I never had a particular affinity for this band, due to sever overexposure of their song “Brick” on American Radiostations.  However, a friend had introduced me to the rest of the songs off their cd “Whatever and Ever,” as well as some of their earlier work and I had come to enjoy the punk-rock-meets-70s-balladeers feel of their music (hey, if you’re bored, count how many times I use the word “melodic”).

Being  a cynic by nature, I was wondering if BFF would tour with an extensive group of back-up musicians, but in this, I was pleasantly disappointed.  On stage in front of me were three musicians, Ben Folds (vocals and piano), Robert Sledge (bass guitar and keyboards), and Darren Jessee (drums).  No guitar players, no superfluous extra pianos, horn sections or back-up singers.  Just the basics, maam.

The trio launched through a nice mix of songs from their most recent release, “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner,” and tunes from their earlier work.  One of the things that amazes me about bands like BFF is their ability to play night-after-night of shows, doing the same songs over again and enduring the same, repetitive requests for fan favourites.  I’ve seen some bands perform like robots (not that I can blame them), too disinterested in the audience and their own music to care.  This was not the case with BFF. They energetically attacked their respective instruments in a vibrant, rich cacophony of sound.  I am no whiz with set-lists, so I’ll just give you some of the highlights of the evening, such as “Army,” “Stephen’s Last Night in Town,” “Mess,” “Fair,” and “Magic.”  My personal favourite for the evening was “Your Redneck Past,” a simple, playful song that jounces along at a funky pace.  On a couple of songs, they broke loose to improvise instrumentals to enthusiastic approval.  On encore, they played a rowdy (well, I don’t think there is anything but) version of the upbeat dose of vitriol “Song for the Dumped.”  I had to laugh at the 12 year old girls shouting the chorus of “Give me my money back, you bitch!”  Of course, I left an unnamed village in the Arctic full of Eskimos singing that chorus, so who am I to laugh, right?

If anyone could be called a punk-rock piano player, which seems a contradiction in terms, it is Ben Folds. He attacked his piano with his stool and leapt atop the Baldwin when encouraging the crowd.  In cruising through the fan web pages for background research, I found that he actually has dreams of flipping the bugger on stage one day.  I could have sworn Robert Sledge was a guitar player for a hard-core punk rock band with his jumping and jamming throughout the show.  He also did a wonderful job playing additional keyboards/synth on several tunes.  Drummer Darren Jessee was amazing, incredibly loose and fluid on the skins.  The set-up of BFF seems to allow more versatility and attention to percussion, which is always a good thing in my feeble mind, especially with a drummer like Jessee behind the set.

Alas, all good things must come to an end and the concert wrapped up with the quiet and orderly departure of the crowd, who were certainly the most well-behaved and restrained audience I had ever witnessed.  I shook off the alcohol buzz and ringing in my ears and headed out to the parking lot.  However, Amanda seized the day (or more aptly, the night) and pushed me in the direction of the tour bus. She convinced me that I must be the die-hard reporter and obtain my interview.

 After standing around chatting with the crew and a 13 year old fan there with her mother, the beleaguered tour manager finally took pity and invited us onto the bus for a brief visit with the band.  We entered to find the exhausted musicians speaking with a group of adolescents.  At this point I was feeling distinctly old and drunk.  Fear and panic set in…Interview?  I had thought of some questions earlier….what were they?  Where was my notebook? In my bag.  Pen? ….AAAARGH, no pen. Official press that I am, I procured one from the 13  year old, who are obviously much more organized than 28 year old archaeologists from the boonies.

I didn’t feel like interfering with the band while they talked to their fans because this is one of the most important connections to maintain. After all, I was a 13 year old girl once too, and would swoon over my rock heroes.  Although I have to say, mine were a lot stranger looking with crazier hair and clothes.  At any rate, I could sympathise, and found it a rather touching moment of nostalgia (but that was probably the booze).

By the time I was ready to talk to them, I was realising that whatever was in that “Caribbean Kiss” was rather potent.  I was evaluating the current liquor I was tasting in my mouth (midori?) when I heard my friend introducing me as the SC correspondent. Uh, hello, nothing like making an impression with your serious journalistic integrity!

I started off asking them about Scotland and their previous shows here. Robert Sledge told me they had formerly played King Tuts and most recently, in May, the Arches.  He mentioned they were planning a show in December at Barrowlands, when they are back in the UK.  So, I expect all of you lot to show up now and tell everyone who sent you!!  At that point, the tour manager appeared to whisk them off to their showers. 

While I was speaking with Robert Sledge, Amanda had been speaking to Ben Folds about his influences and piano technique.  She is actually a classically trained musician, so she knows this stuff.  He said that he had learned the Scarlatti (spelling?) as a boy.  And that is all I could get, trying to record two statements at the same time.  I’m no musician, so I am not sure what that means.

I ended the interview by asking what the residents of Scotland could expect, particularly those unfamiliar with their music, on their next tour.  Ben Folds told me that I could probably describe it better than them, but I’m not so sure, you’ll have to judge that. I pressed him for an answer and he said, “200 Hertz.”

So, there you are Scotland Calling! Fans, a perfect reason to attend a Ben Folds Five concert.  The band was apologetic for not being able to speak longer, hopefully I can catch up with them for a formal interview or James  can catch them over your way.  After all, I am just an archaeologist in real life (which, for the record, Ben Folds thought was pretty cool).