brixton academy

GIG REVIEW: Ben Folds Five @ Brixton Academy

5 December 2012

Five?! False advertising. I want my money back!I’ve always said that, in The Lightyears, one of the few bands we all agree on is Ben Folds Five. There are obvious influences like The Beatles and Queen that we have in common, of course, but no band has permeated our sound more convincingly than this quirky piano-led trio from North Carolina (you can hear this particularly strongly in our live version of Don’t Do It At The Hollywood from 2004).

When Ben Folds Five announced a reunion tour earlier this year, I was first in line. It’s been thirteen years since they last performed together, thirteen years since I stood open-mouthed in front of the stage watching Ben pound the living crap out of his piano and thought: ‘You are the truth, the way and the light. Mould me in your image’.

On Tuesday night, the Brixton Academy was predictably populated with a crowd of beardy, knowing, Guardian-reading, ironic t-shirt wearing thirty-somethings all secretly sizing each other up to determine who had the most penetrative knowledge of limited release Ben Folds Five Japanese vinyls. Excitement grew as we waited for the band to hit the stage, the collective patience of four thousand die-hard fans about to burst at the seams under the spinning stage lights. Everyone speculated over what their first track would be. To be honest, while I personally would have come out all guns blazing with something like sophomore album-opener One Angry Dwarf, I half-expected the famously obtuse geek-chic rockers to kick off with an album track from their relatively unknown 2012 release simply as a way of saying ‘screw you, we’re not just here to play the hits’.

What actually happened was that they kicked off with an album track from their relatively unknown 2012 release simply as a way of saying ‘screw you, we’re not just here to play the hits’. Didn’t really work for me to be honest, but hey – I, like everyone else, was still reeling from the heady impact of seeing Darren, Robert and Ben together again, and ultimately didn’t really give a rat’s ass. This also helped to distract from the disappointingly woolly sound in the Academy, which in my opinion is pretty inexcusable in such an important venue. A band like BF5 can’t just rely on being loud like their shouty guitar-led counterparts – if you can’t actually hear the piano, the whole thing’s pointless.

The band started slowly, almost cautiously, as if deliberately making us wait for The Really Good Stuff. The Songs We All Came To Hear. But by the half-hour mark, things were beginning to loosen up, the soundman had finally joined the party and the nostalgia fest was in full swing. Uncle Walter had everyone bopping like mad, Ben made a nod at his solo career with a rendition of Landed, and the band’s best-known song Brick inspired mass singalong. But it was the closing holy trinity of Song For The Dumped, Kate and Underground that really sealed the deal. We were all in late nineties heaven. Underground begins with the lyric ‘I was never cool in school, I’m sure you don’t remember me’, a line which prompted in return a giant chorus of ‘Who the fuck are you?!’ from the auditorium. This was a collective reference to the moment in the semi-obscure live version of Underground in which a single person shouts this precise line back at them from the crowd, and I think was our way of saying ‘not everyone knows who you are, and we like that, because it confirms we’re clever and sophisticated and the rest of the world, those idiots out there, are just big fat idiots’ (or words to that effect).

This was not a gig for the uninitiated. Ben Folds Five are an acquired taste; they’re very much the Dandelion & Burdock of the music world. If you weren’t there first time round, chances are you’re going to struggle. By the third song, a woman standing next to me was playing Sudoku on her smartphone. I judged her severely for this, obviously, but to be fair I think she was the kind of BF5 rookie who halfway through the gig was still trying to figure out why there’s only three of them.

As reunion gigs go, you couldn’t have asked for anything better. You only had to watch Ben ‘conducting’ the crowd as we sang the brass-parts in closing number Army (which, by the way, he didn’t have to ask us to do – WE JUST KNEW) to appreciate the massive amount of love in the room for this truly unique band. Most people haven’t heard of them, and never will, and BF5 fans like it that way. Even if it is another thirteen years before we get to see them again.