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It took Ben Folds Five about 30 minutes to address “the elephant in the room.”
That would be the band’s cancellation of their June show at Chastain Park Amphitheatre, announced a few days before the set date, which understandably angered their loyal fan base.
In true BFF fashion, though, the trio turned the unfortunate event into a hilarious mea culpa, an impromptu song with rapped/sung lyrics about how “We have a history in Atlanta because we recorded here…we used to play Little Five Points…” The highlight of the song, set to a ramshackle musical backdrop featuring Folds calling out key changes, was the refrain, “We’re back to kiss your a**.”
And for about an hour and 45 minutes Tuesday night at The Tabernacle, the reformed, reinvigorated Five – who launched this reunion tour last week – did exactly that for the grateful, nearly sold-out crowd.
Tuesday was a big day for the band because it saw the release of “The Sound of the Life of the Mind,” the guys’ first new album since 1999 and their amicable breakup that followed.
A quartet of new tunes was shoehorned into the meaty set list, including the title track, co-written with novelist Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”) and “Erase Me.” While BFF’s early songs might be filled with bitterness, there is always a playful smirk lurking inside. But “Erase Me” just sounded angry, even with its Beach Boys harmonies to sweeten the vitriol.
Faring better was “Sky High,” which featured Folds putting bolts into the strings of his piano to achieve a muted guitar sound and ace multi-instrumentalist Robert Sledge deftly handling the double bass on the soft, creeping ballad.
But given the 13-year lapse in live proximity to Folds’ smart aleck-y piano pop songs, the crowd itched for familiarity, which the band delivered with smiles and a sense of appreciation that people still care about them (several times during the show, Folds pulled out his smartphone to record the audience for keepsake footage).
Their 1995 self-titled debut was recalled early with “Jackson Cannery,” “Uncle Walter” and “Alice Childress,” with Folds usually standing at his black Baldwin grand piano, arched forward like a sprinter waiting for the gun to pop, while their mainstream breakthrough, 1997’s “Whatever and Ever Amen,” was represented nearly a half dozen times.
Though Folds’ upper register sounded rusty early in the show, by the halfway point – and especially when he landed on “Brick,” its beautiful melody and somber lyrics hushing the crowd – the singer was in fine, unleashed form.
Even when he wasn’t fully on key, such as during “Philosophy,” his songs are so engaging it’s forgivable – not to mention, his nimble piano playing, drummer Darren Jessee’s nifty cymbal crashes and snare rolls and Sledge’s musical Iron Man performances buoyed nearly every tune.
Following “Philosophy,” BFF walloped with the perfect trifecta of pop – “Kate,” “Army” and the still-awesome “Song for the Dumped,” its middle finger of a chorus sung mightily by the audience.
So many things are simple about Ben Folds Five. Their stage presence. Their look. Their three-man construction. But their music will always be gloriously complicated.
(Check out our photo gallery from the show.)
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene