Ben Folds Five rocks hockey rink

When modern rock/pop trio Ben Folds Five showed up to play the SAC Spring Concert, Lansing-Chapman was bombarded with strange sight and sounds Friday night.

Not the least of these sights was the throng of middle school and junior high student that flooded the floor when the rink’s doors were opened at 9:00 p.m.

By the end of the evening, though, the weird moments worth remembering were provided by Folds himself. During his band’s encore performance of the semi-hit and fan favorite “Song for the Dumped,” Folds stood on the keys of his two on-stage pianos and rocked his pelvis slightly before entreating the audience to sing along as he taunted an ex-lover with the kiss-off “Give me my money back, you bitch!”

It is precisely this kind of showmanship that has made Folds and his band a surprise success in a rock scene dominated by guitars and gimmicks. In half a decade, pianist/singer Folds and his bandmates, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jesse, have risen from Chapel Hill cult status to commercial prominence with the chart success of 1996’s Whatever and Ever Amen and a reputation as a frenetic live act.

In fact, Williams caught Ben Folds Five in the midst of a remarkably busy week.

On Tuesday, the band released The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, its third album of new material (not counting last year’s odds and sods collection Naked Baby Photos). Immediately after the show, the group headed down to New York City to perform the following evening on Saturday Night Live.

Messner marks a shift in the band’s sound and attitude. Gone are most of the rollicking rock songs of albums past. In their place, Folds has crafted an ambitious semi-concept album that remains almost uniformly reflective and downtrodden.

It comes as no surprise, then, that much of the Messner material didn’t provide the live jolt for which the band is known. Still, Folds stuck with his new stuff. He and the band opened their set with the Messner’s horn-inflected “Don’t Change Your Plans,” and eventually covered most of the new album. The trio played numbers such as the Simon and Garfunkel-esque “Magic” and brooding “Mess” well but the songs themselves offered little of the momentum or thrust Folds usually provides live.

Only three Messner tunes gave Folds a chance to really let loose on his piano: the catchy pair of vignettes “Army” and “Your Redneck Past” and the prog-rock dynamics workout “Narcolepsy.” The first single on the album, “Army” was best-received new track, in part because it is the closest approximation of the trademark Folds sound.

If it was the trademark sound that the fans came to hear, they got plenty. Eschewing his old piano ballads – even “Brick,” the song that officially made the band stars – Folds stuck to the up-tempo blowouts from Whatever and its predecessor, Ben Folds Five.

Which meant that the giddy falsetto bridges of “Fair” and “Underground” were in order. So were the goofy confrontational poses of “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” and “Song for the Dumped,” for that matter, and the friendly hooks of “Philosophy” and “The Battle of Who Could Care Less.”

But despite the band’s innate pop sense and general congeniality, it was Folds’ kinetic performance that truly roused the crowd. On one song he played both pianos at the same time; on “Steven’s Last Night in Town” he brought out a meloXXXXX and ran back and forth between a center stage microphone and his pianos, stage left. At the end of the show, Jesse got into the act, knocking down his gong before leaving stage after a rousing performance of “Song for the Dumped.”

Though the performance was loose, it wasn’t sloppy. None of the band members are virtuosos, but all are solid players. More importantly, the trio possesses a cohesion and sense of interplay that made even the obligatorily bombastic song-endings come off.

Ben Folds might be walking an uneasy line between maturity and juvenilia: his inter-song banter, consisting largely of laconic chord and key descriptions, was, depending upon one’s viewpoint, either a subconscious attempt to prove his musical mettle or a conscious attempt to rib the young audience. But on this night, juvenilia ultimately won out, and the band’s performance was eminently enjoyable as a result.

Opening for Ben Folds Five was Fleming & John. Officially a female/male duo, the act came onstage with three backing band members. The keyboardist looked like she belonged in Luscious Jackson; the drummer looked like he belonged in Social Distortion; the bassist didn’t look like anyone in particular. John, on guitar, looked like he was auditioning for the Knack; Fleming looked like she was stalking Stevie Nicks.

Fleming and John strove for a sound as diffuse as its members appeared, attempting to synthesize elements of dub (“Ugly Girl”), new age, Top 40, alt-rock, new wave and, on an especially extreme closing song, punk. Unfortunately, the band’s execution was almost uniformly ham-handed. Although Fleming has a rangy voice and John has a cool guitar, neither has a way with song or lyric.

The result was that the band’s music sounded a bit samey and amateurish, just as did Fleming’s embarrassing repartee with the audience (“We heard that you all kick Amherst butt!” Great, thanks a lot).

Still, the concert was clearly a fiscal success and a social one. According to SAC, the show sold out, which means that approximately 1,100 tickets were purchased. Somewhat over half of the tickets were bought by Williams students, but the considerable number of local high-schoolers paying the $15 non-student price might make the event a profitable one.

Though the performance was loose, it wasn’t sloppy. None of the band members is a virtuoso, but all are solid players. More importantly, the trio possesses a cohesion and sense of interplay that made even the usually obligatory bombastic song-endings come off.

Ben Folds might be walking an uneasy line between maturity and juvenilia: his inter-song banter, consisting largely of laconic chord and key descriptions, was, depending upon one’s viewpoint, either a subconscious attempt to prove his musical mettle or a conscious attempt to rib the young audience. But on this night, juvenilia ultimately won out, and the band’s performance was eminently enjoyable as a result.

Opening for Ben Folds Five was Fleming & John. Officially a female/male duo, the act came onstage with three backing band members. The keyboardist looked like she belonged in Luscious Jackson; the drummer looked like he belonged in Social Distortion; the bassist didn’t look like anyone in particular. John, on guitar, looked like he was auditioning for the Knack; Fleming looked like she was stalking Stevie Nicks.

Fleming and John strove for a sound as diffuse as its members appeared, attempting to synthesize elements of dub (“Ugly Girl”), new age, Top 40, alt-rock, new wave, punk and whatever genre it is that involves playing rainsticks. Unfortunately, the band’s execution was almost uniformly ham-handed. Although Fleming has a rangy voice and John has a cool guitar, neither has a way with song or lyric.

The result was that the band’s music sounded a bit samey and amateurish, just as did Fleming’s embarrassing repartee with the audience (“We heard that you all kick Amherst butt!” Great, thanks a lot).

Still, the concert was clearly a fiscal success and a social one. According to SAC, the show sold out, which means that approximately 1,100 tickets were purchased. More than half of the tickets were bought by Williams students, but the considerable number of local high-schoolers paying the $15 non-student price might even have made the event a profitable one.

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