Since this weekend marks the "official" start of the holiday shopping season, we've got the annual gift guide with musical suggestions for what to get your loved ones (or yourself). The list includes some excellent 2012 albums from acts that call the Triangle home (and even a book by yours truly), so check it out -- and buy local!
For years, Ben Folds Five has come tantalizingly close to seemingly like a present-day band. There was that one-off reunion show in 2008, and the new tracks they recorded for a 2011 best-of. And now, they're taking the leap back into fulltime existence. Sort of. The trio's first album of new material in 13 years will be out next week, and they're playing Sunday night in Cary. For more about the album and the reunion, see the story in Friday's paper.
But don't expect them to be as omnipresent as they were in the late '90s, when they played "Saturday Night Live" (the first act in local-music history to achieve that feat) and toured so much that they burned out. They talked a bit about that in the preview story before the 2008 reunion show, which I've included below since there's not a workable link for it anymore.
Ben Folds Five Reunion? Whatever
By David Menconi, News & Observer
Sept. 18, 2008
The toughest ticket in the Triangle this week is tonight's Ben Folds Five reunion show and if you're not already set, you have virtually no hope at this point.
The show at UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall will be the trio's first performance since 2000, and all 1,600 tickets disappeared almost instantly when they went on sale.
Shut-out fans took to Craigslist, leading to much online anguish as asking prices for tickets (originally priced at $50) climbed to the four-digit mark. One desperate ticket seeker threatened, "I am going to chop a limb off if I can't get BFF reunion tickets (My arm or even a leg!!!)." And another post, which has since been deleted, offered sexual favors.
Told this, Folds gives a weary chuckle.
"Bringing people together, it's what we do, " he says, deadpan, over the phone from Nashville. "But seriously, I'm moved that people care that much. I think it helps that we haven't spent ourselves cheaply with a lot of reunion-ing, so we've kept what we did special and worth something."
The fervor is all the more impressive given that it's been a decade since the trio of Folds, Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee hit their commercial peak with the single "Brick." A solemn account of an abortion, "Brick" was enough of a hit to get the band onto "Saturday Night Live." The album it came from, "Whatever and Ever Amen, " eventually sold 1 million copies.
Pretty heady stuff for a band that was playing for crowds in the low dozens at the Brewery and Local 506 not too many years before that. Yet the band lasted only one more album before breaking up.
Since 2000, Folds' solo career has continued at a pretty good clip. While he has yet to match the platinum heights of "Whatever, " Folds' albums sell well into six figures, and he draws steady sellout crowds on the road. Jessee leads a band of his own, Hotel Lights, which has had some success getting songs into films and television shows ("Baby Mama, " "Grey's Anatomy"). Sledge is the only one who still lives in Chapel Hill, where he spends most of his time teaching and working as "bassist for hire."
Nearly a decade on, the question remains: Why did they break up in the first place? The specific reasons remain somewhat murky. Asked separately, all three principals cite the same generalities: variations on burnout and fatigue.
Between 1995 and 1999, Ben Folds Five released four albums and played thousands of shows all over the world, touring almost nonstop. They worked so hard that Sledge says it was "almost a relief" when the end came.
"I have all kinds of ways of explaining it that make no sense to anybody outside the three of us, " Folds says. "The simplest way would be to say that if people know you as Captain Kirk, they have a hard time understanding why you don't want to walk around being Captain Kirk all day.
"We were having to pedal this machine and we couldn't stop it. I don't think any of us slept more than three hours a night for four years straight. So we were jetlagged and crazy all the time.
"There wasn't any big fight, it was not like that. We just didn't feel the magic, and we could see the business crumbling before us. If you had a hit in the '90s, the cards were stacked against you from then on for making any kind of artistic statement. And we got creamed for trying."
That attempted artistic statement was Ben Folds Five's 1999 swan song, "The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner" (a famous mountain-climber, and a name Jessee used on fake IDs as a teenager). "Reinhold" was an ambitious, lushly arranged pop album presented as one long suite of songs. Unfortunately, it didn't yield any hit singles and sold about one-quarter as many copies as "Whatever."
At the time, it seemed that perceived failure might have caused the breakup. All three members dismiss the suggestion.
"If it had been a crazy success, that might have enticed us into continuing, " says Jessee. "But I think things would have ended around the same time anyway. We were so busy touring and moving and working, I don't think we had a clear idea of our accomplishments. We didn't pace ourselves very well. But we had so many offers, it was hard not to say 'yes' to everything and keep going."
"Reinhold Messner" drew mostly positive reviews, but a few darts that stung Folds remembers one that likened it to "the Muppets trying to do Radiohead." But it will take center-stage at this reunion, because the band is playing the album in its entirety as part of MySpace's "Front to Back" series.
Folds was approached about recreating "Reinhold" onstage, and he decided to get his former bandmates together for a one-off show. It came together quickly, set up only about a month in advance. The show was announced on Sept. 2, and tickets went on sale six days later.
"Ben called to say he'd rather do this with us, " Sledge says. "No big deal, we could say no and it wouldn't hurt his feelings. But we wanted to, as long as it wasn't some crazy high-pressure thing in a stadium. I think we're finally ready to play together again."
One challenge will be reconnecting with music from the distant past. Emotionally, at least, "Reinhold" should be easier for the band to pull off than one of the earlier albums.
"It's the last thing we did, so it's a little more natural and not too much of a reach, " says Jessee. "We started Ben Folds Five when we were pretty young, and the spirit and energy of 'Whatever' would have been too young to try and recapture now. The mood of 'Reinhold' seems like something we're capable of."
Still, they'll have some cobwebs to shake off, although Sledge says he can still play those old songs note for note. Jessee hasn't seriously played drums since his Ben Folds Five days, and Folds recently claimed not to have listened to "Reinhold" since 2000.
No worries, though it will all get ironed out in rehearsals. Afterward, they'll most likely go their separate ways again.
"We were three guys moving a baby grand piano across the country in a van, " Folds says. "That's part of the reason why we stopped when we did.
"Even if nobody else thought so, we felt there was something I don't know, sacred about what we were trying to do. We took a lot of pride in it. Still do."
Back in March, when Ben Folds played Raleigh with the NC Symphony, he told the crowd that he was in the midst of recording a new Ben Folds Five album -- the first new music from the trio of Folds, Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee since 1999. And this reunion appears to be turning into a long-term thing, because Ben Folds Five is hitting the road this fall and the Triangle is on the schedule. The group's first tour in 12 years will play Cary's Booth Amphitheatre on Sept. 16, and tickets (priced at $39.50-$49.50) go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday.
With any luck, this will go better than Atlanta last month.
So if you're a high school student who would like to get your "Glee" on (only in a much cooler way), here's your chance: Community Chorus Project is looking for a few good singers. A few score good singers, actually.
Local arts entrepreneur Lauren Hodge assembled the initial Community Chorus Project last year, which debuted with fine performances of R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" and Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." Recorded and filmed at Manifold Recording Studio with arrangements by Shana Tucker and The Beast's Eric Hirsh, videos went out far and wide, earning the approval of R.E.M. Now they're looking to do it again in August, this time covering Radiohead, Ben Folds Five, Bruno Mars and others. Members of Lost in the Trees, Megafaun and The Old Ceremony are among the local musicians participating.
If you want in, auditions will be May 12 at UNC-Chapel Hill. For details, go here.
The Tar Heels may have fallen short of the Final Four in the NCAA tournament, but Chapel Hill's music community just made the top-four in a different countdown. Livability.com, a website that runs top-10 lists about the country's best places to live, puts Chapel Hill at No. 4 in its "Top 10 Cities With the Best Music Scenes Outside Nashville, New York City and Los Angeles" -- right between Omaha and Portland. Coming in at No. 1 is Athens, Ga.
I have to say, however, that the methodology is a bit peculiar. Rather than quote someone who actually lives in Chapel Hill or is familiar with its new-music quadrant, the piece quotes Doobie Brothers/New Grass Revival member John Cowan, apparently because he has played in Chapel Hill "many times since he began touring extensively in the 1970s" (which is probably code for, "He answered the phone when we called"). The list of acts with Chapel Hill ties is pretty dated, too: James Taylor, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Archers of Loaf, Southern Culture on the Skids, Superchunk and Ben Folds Five, all of whom go back at least 15 years.
Check out Ben Folds explaining the concept of NBC's new singing competition show, "Sing Off," which premiered last night and continues tonight and tomorrow night with a finale on December 21. Folds, who is from North Carolina, is a judge on the show, and Time Magazine's TV critic James Poniewozik calls him the "greatest reality judge." In the video below, Folds talks about what he's looking for from performers and says he's not there to "tear them down," though he recognizes artists "can't move along unless they know what their problems are."
If you couldn't get tickets for last month's Ben Folds Five reunion show in Chapel Hill, you can watch the first 53 minutes of it (the "Reinhold Messner" portion of the program) here. And if you did get tickets, you may now spend the next 53 minutes trying to find yourself in the crowd at the same link.
Either way, it's time well-spent.
Speaking of piano pop stars, last month's big Ben Folds Five reunion show won't be available for online watching for a few more weeks. In the meantime, you can catch Mr. Folds on TV tonight (or Friday morning, actually). Folds plays NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," offering up his new single "You Don't Know Me." Regina Spektor will also be there to reprise her cameo role from the recorded version.
So how was Thursday night's Ben Folds Five reunion show, you ask? For starters, I'd say it was a great moment in local-music history, and one of the coolest shows I've seen this year; and during "Army," I seriously thought everybody in the room was going to have a heart attack because we were all making like Tom Cruise in "Risky Business."
It felt like a privilege to be there. The review is below.
(photo by Emily Shur.)
ADDENDUM (12/15/09): Ouch.
'90S REVERB AT BEN FOLDS FIVE SHOW
By David Menconi, News & Observer
Sept. 22, 2008
CHAPEL HILL -- That real-estate axiom of location, location, location can apply to concerts, too. Like the Ben Folds Five reunion show at UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall Thursday night, the trio's first performance in eight years.
Put that show in New York, and it's just another show in the big city. But put it in Chapel Hill, the trio's hometown during their mid-'90s heyday, and it's cool. Throw in a delirious crowd salted with many of the band's local peers from back then, and it's special. Throw in a few songs steeped in local lore, and it's supernatural.
The evening's most spine-tingling moment came with a raucous version of 1999's "Army," Ben Folds Five's final moment of mainstream pop stardom, and a song that now feels like an anthropological document of a bygone indie-rock generation. As the band dropped out to let the crowd scream the crescendo, "God please spare me more rejection," it felt like a circle closing.
Thursday's show was a one-off reunion for MySpace's "Front to Back" series, featuring one album played in its entirety. So the first half of the program consisted of the group's 1999 swan song, "The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner." In many ways, it's the quintessential Ben Folds Five album, swinging between brilliant pop and wild self-indulgence with a sequence guaranteed to tax attention spans.
"It's not an immediate-gratification record, " Folds acknowledged. But while "Reinhold" seemed like an over-reach at the time (and also performed dismally on the charts), it has aged surprisingly well. Thursday night, it sounded terrific.
There was a sense of pent-up anticipation as the band took the stage, and the sold-out house gave a gigantic "whoo" as the band hit the big raveup on the opening "Narcolepsy." Other high points were the spectral piano riff to "Hospital Song, " the Steely Dan vibe of "Jane" and the big surprise of the night, Folds' father Dean, onstage to recreate his voicemail recording on "Your Most Valuable Possession."
Given that it's been eight years since the trio's last show, it wasn't surprising that a bit of rust showed. Folds forgot the words halfway through "Regrets, " bassist Robert Sledge had a clam or two on synthesizer and drummer Darren Jessee wasn't the tightest he's ever been.
But everything was pretty air-tight for the second half of the show, when the trio went deeper into their back catalog, all the way back to "Eddie Walker" from their very first single. They completely nailed the atmospherics of both "Selfless, Cold and Composed" and "Where's Summer B.?, " with the latter song's reference to the long-gone Hardback Cafe adding a note of poignancy to the evening.
"Battle of Who Could Care Less" was another massive crowd sing-along, a perfect little nugget of attitude dressed up as summertime pop. And "Song for the Dumped" felt like a temporary pass to be a callow adolescent again, a virtuoso display by all three players as well as the crowd on howl-along vocals. At the end, Folds picked up his stool and heaved it at the piano.
Some things never change.