Ben Folds Five – O2 Academy, Brixton – 5 December 2012

Written for the Music Fix.

In most piano-playing cultures, the hammering Ben Folds inflicts on the keys would shatter a social norm or two. If his memory is accurate, Folds’ energetic showing on Later… once prompted veteran keyboard-botherer Jools Holland to utter a horrified: “That geezer’s fucked me piano”. Along with his posture when performing – preferring to stand at the grand in a pop-punk lunge rather than sitting on a stool – the raw-ish power of his performance provides the limit of his rock ‘n’ roll sensibility. The occasional Elton John or Neil Sedaka cover probably better represents his musical comfort zone.

Until he went solo in 2000, Folds was known as leader of ironically named trio Ben Folds Five. Although Folds has toured with an equivalent band in the intervening period, this was the first time the original line-up – Folds, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee – had visited the UK together in 13 years. The near-capacity audience was mostly attracted by the prospect of hearing the Ben Folds Five back catalogue performed by the right people, but the setlist wasn’t entirely determined by the demand for late-90s reminiscence.

After opening with a below-tempo ‘Missing the War’, the first half alternated between old favourites and tracks from comeback album The Sound of the Life of the Mind. The cool jazz of ‘Selfless, Cold and Composed’ and a mellow ‘Battle of Who Could Care Less’ were the most effective early on, as the regular shifts between known and unfamiliar music stopped the set from really getting going. Of the new, ‘Erase Me’ made the boldest transition to the stage, its sheer pomp and glam the closest Folds has come to sounding like Muse, while ‘Draw a Crowd’’s catchy piano riffs and juvenile chorus sat neatly alongside material from debut album Ben Folds Five.

The show performed best as a comeback during a second half that looked firmly backwards, exhibiting numerous career highlights and giving long-term fans the chance for an extensive singalong. The best responses were reserved for one single from each of their first three albums: ‘Underground’, ‘Brick’ and ‘Army’, during which, as usual, Folds split the audience in half to mimic the communicating horn sections. Jools Holland might not have invited them back onto his show, but the audience here were left feeling as if the band never been away in the first place.

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