People at concerts are an interesting thing. There are people you don’t know, people who look vaguely familiar, people you do know, people who look like people you know. (This last one is most disturbing.) And you need to be looking around; that’s what you do. Otherwise, you’re just staring blankly ahead…at least have a purpose. When you’re by yourself, however, this voyeuristic phenomenon is worsened tenfold. You become transfixed because, unless you’re a comfortable extrovert, you don’t talk much. You keep to yourself and let thoughts fester. And you hear things: a little guy (maybe 24, super clean-cut, glasses) telling two small gullible college girls — a freshman, braces and her skipped-a-grade senior friend — that he works in a wet suit, cleaning out septic tanks; a girl, leading a man by the hand through the dense crowd, shouting — above heads and around out-stretched beers — a story about her cat refusing to use his litterbox; a woman talking, no, screaming to herself, to remember not to lose her keys. It’s hard not to eavesdrop. (Segue.) But as pleasantly eclectic and entertaining these freaks were, one thing is for sure: they enjoyed themselves. And why not? After Bonham’s raucous and spunky set, and the obligatory set change — which feared 10 anticipatory and bizarre minutes of the lights being down and the band not ready — Folds and crew (bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee a.k.a. Greg Kinnear’s lost twin) erupted into a vibrant hour and a half set that left the audience no other choice. The poignant and trademark ballads mostly took a back seat (save for The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner‘s “Magic”) in lieu of foot-stomping sing-a-alongs and up-tempo rockers. In essence, it was one long crowd-pleaser, as the audience jiggled to every pounded piano key, drum beat, “la la la,” “na na na,” and “da da da.” Tunes like the opening “Jackson Cannery” (the first song off their first album…always an interesting choice for a band), “Kate,” and “Army” had a lofty, communal feel to them: these people wanted to be there, sharing this music. They love this Ben Folds. And again, why not? Folds and his cohorts are an amusing bunch to say the least. They treat the stage as exactly that, rather than just a means through which to play their music to hundreds of adoring onlookers. Instead, the experience is as much comical and theatric as it is musical, what with Folds’ Billy Joel-esque piano antics, like crawling across it and onto the floor, and Jessee’s well-timed drum stick toss. They’re showman, that’s for sure. What makes a Ben Folds Five show so impressive, though, is the immense wall of sound these three men can produce. And with such perfect togetherness and harmony. Songs from Reinhold Messner, lacking their studio percussion backing, didn’t sound like they missed much. Choral arrangements, coupled with some audience help, filled the gaps perfectly on “Don’t Change Your Plans” and the wonderful “Narcolepsy” (one the most majestic songs of the last decade). And improvs on songs like the new “Secret Life of Morgan Davis” (featuring some hilarious vocal interventions by one of the roadies), “Fair,” and the lone cover, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” displayed an uncanny knack of unity. And pleasure in what they do, a pleasure that was undeniably contagious. If there was any flaw in a remarkably loose, upbeat and enjoyable performance, it would have to be the well-deserved and requested encore. After closing with favs “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” and the tongue-in-cheek battle cry “Underground,” Five’s return abruptly slowed things down, breaking into their eponymous debut’s “Alice Childress” and “The Last Polka.” If anything, a little anti-climactic, but exceptional nonetheless. And after everything else, the camaraderie, the execution, the overall feeling, there couldn’t be any other way. Hopefully, those strange people will now have something more intriguing to discuss.
Ben Folds Five / Tracy Bonham