By Evan McGrath
I should probably start out by saying that Ben Folds Five’s Naked Baby Photos was the first CD I ever bought with my own money. It wasn’t one of their formal studio albums, but it was filled with their weirdness and chemistry as a band, and I fell in love. I shadowed their career following that album and kept buying Ben’s solo work like Rockin’ the Suburbs where he showed off his musical chops as an instrumentalist and songwriter. Needless to say, I was excited when I heard they were getting back together to record some music and even more excited when they began playing shows together again. In some ways, I had been waiting over a decade for their show at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park. Let me tell you, it was worth the wait.
It was an eclectic crowd in Central Park on Friday, but when your music has been around for almost 20 years you’re bound to attract fans that span different demographics. Regardless of who they were, they all started cheering loudly when Ben Folds, Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge took the stage. They got right into it, playing a cut from their new album called Michael Praytor, Five Years Later. It’s a nice, pretty, stripped-down song featuring classic BFF harmonies that generates a bridge between the band’s past and their present. They transitioned into some old songs like Jackson Cannery, which provided a great platform to show that despite more than a decade of being apart, they still have it. The years have added a depth and timbre that feels mature and seasoned in a fantastic way.
After playing another older tune, they performed another track off the new LP called Erase Me, which ended with Sledge rocking some funky, distorted bass guitar. After that, Folds showed he’s still a consummate entertaining showman when he vamps between songs. Then, they went back to the old school with Alice Childress which, judging by the crowd’s strength in singing along, is a fan favorite. Following that, Ben began in his words, “Stuffing shit in the strings”, and cracked jokes with the crowd. While he was busy messing with his piano, Robert grabbed the full-sized bass he had a little ways off-stage and Darren traded his drumsticks for padded mallets. Ben noted right before he started playing that the humor of the moment was an odd way to begin playing one of their new songs called Sky High. Hearing it live with the effect of the distorted piano and the soft drums and the bass together with their slow harmonies and melancholy tone was beautiful and sad. It gave the crowd a chance to come down and come together.
From there, they went back and forth between a little old and a little new, and along the way, absolutely knocked Emaline out of the park. After playing their hearts out for Philosophy, Ben shared a joke about their promoter wanting them to play the Garden and sell out by selling one-dollar tickets; and then charge twenty-five bucks to take a piss. Out of (seemingly) nowhere, they rolled right into Army catching everyone off-guard in just the right way.
They ended with a long version of Song for the Dumped in which they turned Robert losing his cord into a jam session made up of a maraca, mic tapping and Robert getting that speaker buzz when you touch a ¼” plug with your hand. They jammed and then dropped right back into Song for the Dumped finishing the song and walking off stage.
Of course, that was only a tease and they came back out after a few minutes of cheers and catcalls for an epic encore. They started rocking again with Underground getting a great “Who the fuck are you?!” from audience members. Their last song was One Angry Dwarf & 200 Solemn Faces, which they played the hell out of. Ben ended by getting all “rock star” and throwing his stool at the piano; reminding us that these very talented musicians, who play music with serious talent, do not take themselves too seriously.