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Ben Folds Five – The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner

How does one even review Ben Folds without too many superlatives? Answer: you can’t. So I’ll just remind you about the songs.

Here we have the crashing sweep of Narcolepsy, the jazzy swing rock of Don’t Change Your Plans, and the jazzy country lope of Mess. Then it’s a beautiful piano ballad called Magic that builds as it goes (with timpanis!), to be followed by the quietly pretty menace of Hospital Song.

And what about Army? Fuck I love this song. I love absolutely everything about it. And it’s paired perfectly with the playful pop rock truth of Your Redneck Past. Then shift gears for the swingin’ phone message in Your Most Valuable Possession, and the odd new wave jazz pop behind the brilliance of Regrets.

Closing out the album is the one-two punch of the soaring, pretty Jane, and one more great swing piano thinker called Lullabye.

In sum:

Complete brilliance.

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SLCR #200: Ben Folds and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (May 21, 2014)

Review number two hundred!

Two!

Friggin’!

Hundred!

This is ridiculous. I feel like I should throw a party. A concert review party. Best kind. Chicken fingers and mozza sticks for all. The DJ can make questionable choices. Patrick can rearrange the furniture and make the bathroom smell like oranges. A LOT of oranges.

Maybe this is a good stopping point. But I’ve felt like stopping for years, off and on, and here we are.

I want to put all these things in a book. Have I mentioned that? Self-published, because nobody would pay for these and they’ve all been free on the internet at one point or another anyway. An ebook, because it would be big and we all have too many books and books are heavy. Hard to move. Though maybe I’ll order up a handful of print copies if I can pull it off without bankrupting myself, just for my own ego. I have a plan. I’ve had a plan for a while, if that isn’t becoming apparent. Re-read everything. Edit everything. Fix typos. Don’t fix horrible opinions. Restore self-censored content. Re-post the old reviews to the internet. Add pictures where possible. Scan tickets. Write a new introduction for each review. Introduce the cast of characters properly so you know why I want Patrick to make the bathroom smell like a lot of oranges.

I’m big on the “planning” part and not so much into the “doing.” But now you can all publically shame me when review #300 rolls around and I’ve done nothing.

I may never get to #300. When the book goes to print, the reviews end. Or when the reviews end, I’ll get the book ready. I don’t know. Something like that, in some order.

I couldn’t finalize the book and then write more reviews. I can’t leave stragglers, waiting forever for a second volume that will never come.

I bought my dad a set of all the James Bond Blu-Rays for Christmas. It’s very nice but it is also kind of silly. I mean, it’s not like they’ll never make more Bond movies, you know? He’ll have this nice fancy box set and a stack of separate individual discs that he’ll buy as future movies come out. So yes, when my concert review book is done, I’m leaving the game.

But can you live without my opinions of Gordon Lightfoot? Or Glass Tiger? Or this year’s Folk Festival? I guess it’s not like I don’t know them already:

GORDON LIGHTFOOD: Good to see him, but would have been better to see him many years ago. Also, I don’t know many of his songs and he skipped at least one of them. And I am NOT fixing that typo up there because “Gordon Lightfood” is the funniest thing I’ve written in some time.

GLASS TIGER: Not bad, all things considered, but I didn’t enjoy them as much as Deserée did. Also, she was way more excited for Glass Tiger than anyone should be in 2014 – or, indeed, ever – but didn’t do anything crazy like rush the stage to profess her undying love for Alan Frew, much to my disappointment (and probably to his).

REGINA FOLK FESTIVAL: This one will vary depending on the weather and my overall mood, but I expect I will like Friday night best of all because Joel Plaskett.

You know, if I only write a sentence for each review, I could keep doing this forever. But that’s not what these are about, is it? These are about documenting all the shenanigans (or lack thereof) that surround these nights, and briefly touching on whether or not I actually enjoyed the performance and whether or not I thought it was any good, all while trying to camouflage my lack of musical knowledge. And with that in mind…

You know I love Ben Folds. I have been a fan ever since first being introduced to Ben Folds Five on a free CD sampler that came with CMJ New Music Monthly, back in the time before you could instantly hear every single song ever recorded for free. I have seen Ben Folds in Fargo (an eight-hour drive – each way – from my house), and with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (also an eight-hour drive), and with Ben Folds Five in Minneapolis (twelve hours). All three shows were great. I would gladly see him again anytime, though I could do without the long-distance drives. I don’t ever expect he’ll play Regina (even though Americans find it so fun to say), but c’mon, Ben. At only six hours away, even Winnipeg would be an improvement. And you have no idea how much it pains me to say that, though I admit that the sting is lessened by the knowledge that I am the first person ever in the history of all humankind to string the words “Winnipeg would be an improvement” together in that exact order.

My friend Candice likes Ben Folds a lot too. If memory serves, this would be her first appearance in an SLCR. She’d never seen Ben before. Whenever I’ve gone to see him, the timing didn’t work out for her. This time, she made it work, so I made it work. Folds’ last concert with the Edmonton Symphony was just over two years ago – March 29, 2012. Like I said, I loved it, but if Candice hadn’t been able go this time, I don’t think I would have bothered either. Between the travel time, the cost, and knowing that the set list was bound to be very similar (when you’re playing with a symphony, your opportunities to mix things up are limited), I would have lived with missing this one. But with a good excuse to go? Couldn’t miss out.

After much deliberation and schedule juggling and plan changing, I caught a bus to Saskatoon on the weekend before the concert. I had the whole week off, so I spent a few days with family and friends before Candice and her husband Ryan picked me up around noon on the day of the show. They brought me Wendy’s! Delightful of them.

The drive was uneventful, which pretty much always beats the alternative. We listened to satellite radio comedy for most of the way there, which was its usual mixed bag. Lots of garbage, a few good lines here and there, and one of my favourite Bill Cosby routines (chocolate cake). And for the first time in a very long time, I found myself having run out of turns to play in my iPhone games.

When we got to Edmonton, we went straight downtown, not stopping at the hotel, to ensure that we had time to eat beforehand. Dinner was at a Ricky’s. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten at a Ricky’s before and am in no great rush to do so again. It wasn’t bad or anything; it was just one of those meals that could best be described as “a thing that happened.” Completely forgettable… so, of course, I’m writing about it for future generations. Hey future Earthlings and associated spacemen! On May 21, 2014, I ate a Greek chicken wrap with a Caesar salad! It was acceptable! Please take this information and build your culture around it. I expect many songs and chants, which you can upload into the hard drive that now contains my consciousness.

If I’d been in the milestone frame of mind, I’d have had chicken fingers and mozza sticks, the only appropriate meal. But I have a question for you: am I just old now, or were mozza sticks maybe never really all that good? Ones from the oven are always disappointing, sure, but even the deep fried “good” ones? I guess I just don’t know why anyone would get mozza sticks when deep fried dill pickle spears are a thing.

Anyway. We were only a few blocks from the Winspear Centre, so one quick walk and we were in our seats. After the last show, I remarked that the Winspear is a beautiful venue and I’d love to see something like it here. Candice said pretty much the same thing upon seeing it. Speaking of the seats, I did much better, ticket-wise, than the previous show – sixth row and close to the middle. Close enough to get hit with Ben Folds’ spit if he was determined to do so, and that’s what you’re after in a concert experience.

Actually, no. We were close enough to justify me sending Jeff a picture showing just how close to the stage we were. He replied “Hate you so much” which is what I was truly after in a concert experience. Also, it’s what he replies anytime I text him anything, or when I send a bottle of sparkling apple juice to his house. Hypothetically.

Showtime! As I expected, the setlist was very similar to the last symphony show – almost all of the same songs, just in a different order. They opened with Effington, and I still enjoy the choir singing “If there’s a god, he’s laughing at us and our football team.” The first half of the show closed with Steven’s Last Night In Town; the orchestra gives the song a swing/big band feel and it was one of the highlights of the evening. I like this version much better than the studio album. He came back out of intermission with Zak and Sara, and closed the second set with Narcolepsy (which followed a version of One Angry Dwarf which tore the place down – he could have had everyone leave after that one and then return for Narcolepsy as the encore and that would have worked well too).

I think the first half of the show also included (in some order) Smoke (also better with the symphony than on the record), Jesusland, Picture Window, and Landed. The second half featured Annie Waits, Cologne, Brick, and Not The Same. Of course, someone yelled out “ROCK THIS BITCH” – actually, in this case it was “JAZZ THIS BITCH” – so we got an impromptu, jazz-inspired number which again put the choir to good use. I wonder if he prepped them beforehand? “Hey choir guys, just so you know, there’s a good chance that tonight I’ll make you sing ‘rock this bitch in Edmonton’ over and over. Also, very pregnant lady, if you suddenly need to leave early, I totally get that.”

Two songs from the previous show were dropped (Gracie and The Ascent of Stan) in favour of two movements from Ben’s new piano concerto. I believe this was the first time these pieces had been played live since he debuted the concerto a few weeks ago, so it was neat to be able to hear these. An album release is planned but won’t be for a while yet. We have established that I don’t know anything about music proper, so I’ll just say that I enjoyed these pieces and look forward to hearing the whole thing. Ben explained that back in the day, a great piano concerto could “put seats in asses,” much to the amusement of the crowd and the conductor. This was not the conductor’s first show with Ben, so he could also get away with sarcastically applauding Ben’s choice of title for his piano concerto (“Piano Concerto for Symphony”).

The symphony didn’t play the encore; instead, Ben came out alone to do a few songs. Like last time, he did Army and The Last Polka. He also performed The Luckiest by himself and, earlier, had played Annie Waits with the symphony – at the last show, it was the reverse. (Thanks, mystery person who posted the setlist for the last show online. You saved me literally minutes of re-reading my own review!)

I will admit to a tinge of disappointment that he didn’t surprise us with a new symphonic rendition of his song from Community. Don’t you think a 70-piece orchestra could do fine work with Ass Crack Bandit? I think they’d class it right up. If I close my eyes, I can already tune out the outside world and hear the choir singing “A-S-S-C-R-A-C-K bandit.” This must happen. I really needed to mobilize Twitter behind this cause before the next Ben Folds show I see.

We were seated close to the end of our row, with only one spot to my right before the aisle. I don’t know if the girl who sat there was at the show by herself or just not sitting with her friends; either way, she was super excited for Ben Folds and mouthed along with all the songs, including the more obscure ones. Her enthusiasm was contagious and I found her to be delightful. Meanwhile, the guy ahead of me took a picture during the show and spent several minutes cropping it, selecting the right filter, perfecting the caption, and posting it to Instagram. This seemed like a massive waste of show time – there’s a #latergram hashtag for a reason – but he later redeemed himself by going absolutely bonkers for songs like Army and Zak & Sara. Thank you, strangers! It is fun to be around fun people.

Speaking of fun people, Candice and Ryan seemed to really enjoy the show. I didn’t doubt that they would, but I’d hate for it to have sucked after all this time. As for me, the evening did feel like a bit of a re-run. I expected as much, but even a lot of the stories were the same – Steven kept asking for parties, Ben made up a song on the spot about that astronaut, bringing in a rock star is basically the symphony’s equivalent of a wet t-shirt contest. Having said that, I still had a fine time and have spent the past week with one song or another stuck in my head – usually ones that hadn’t previously been favourites like Cologne, Last Polka, or Last Night in Town. And I’d still happily go see Ben again, especially if it was a solo show and/or closer. Preferably both.

On our way out of the Winspear Centre, some guy was handing out cards promoting the free download of his band’s album. I like free! And you probably like free too. But I can’t recommend you get something that might suck, right? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a bonus album review right here? I thought so, but my iTunes Match is being a giant dick. My phone sees that I have the album but won’t actually let me play it. Also, it is showing up as having been split into three separate albums for reasons known only to iTunes. So instead of a proper review, I will just say that I heard the first few songs the other night while I was making supper and I liked them well enough on first (distracted) listen.

So if you feel like it, you can sample or download your own free copy of Over Land and Sea (deluxe edition! is there a non-deluxe edition somewhere?) by Lauren Mann & The Fairly Odd Folk at http://www.noisetrade.com/laurenmannmusic/over-land-and-sea—deluxe-edition. I bet they’d like it if you tipped them, too.

After getting to the hotel, I slept, ate an expensive room service omelette, played black light mini-golf, lost to Ryan at air hockey in a nail-biter, lost to Ryan at air hockey in a blowout, ate a burger with bacon and peanut butter and jelly on it, got a ride to the airport, and flew home. In that order.

UPCOMING SHOWS
• Regina Folk Festival (Serena Ryder, Joel Plaskett Emergency, Sam Roberts Band, Indigo Girls, Los Lobos, Mo Kenney, Geoff Berner, more – August 8-10)
• Son of Dave (August 14)
• Glass Tiger (September 27)
• Gordon Lightfoot (November 7)

Ben Folds Five: The Sound of the Life of the Mind (2012)

A quick scan of the KMA archives suggests that I haven’t posted an actual album review in two and a half years. It’s only fitting, then, that when I finally do write one up, it’s for an album that came out months ago. Of course, it’s also for a record that took months longer to get shipped to me than it should have, so I guess we’re all at fault here. Share the blame. Or at least my part of it.

To briefly recap the necessary history, Ben Folds Five (Ben Folds, Darren Jessee, and Robert Sledge) was together for roughly seven years before separating in 2000. They reunited for a one-off show in North Carolina in 2008 (one week before I was in the area for a wedding – boo!) but had otherwise gone their separate ways until late 2011 or so, when I first started hearing rumblings of a new album and tour.

Sure enough, in the spring of 2012, Ben Folds Five launched a campaign via MusicPledge (basically, it’s like Kickstarter, except… well, it’s exactly like Kickstarter) where fans could fund the recording of the new album. Rewards for backers ranged from MP3s to a custom version of the song Do It Anyway rewritten to be about you. At $2,500, that one was sadly out of my price range (this did not stop me from considering it, ever so briefly, but I did not Do It Anyway). Instead, I opted for a signed vinyl record (I’m not really into autographs if I didn’t get them personally, but I bought in early and initially, there was no unsigned vinyl option) and a CD. These came with a digital download as well.

Due to some sort of snafu, my copies of the record and CD were months late. I hadn’t even thought of it since I got my digital download as soon as it was available. The first time I realized that I was still owed my rewards was when I got a very apologetic email from Ben Folds Five’s manager, offering me a CD or a t-shirt as a make-good. I opted for the extra CD (which showed up before the CD and signed record I’d initially ordered), which I gave to a fellow BF5 fan.

At any rate, my CD and record finally showed up!

Ben Folds Five CD and vinyl record

A signed record, a not-signed CD, and a robot lost in thought.

Isn’t that lovely? And as an added bonus, all people who contributed to the campaign were credited in the liner notes as Vice-President of Promotion. This was a running theme throughout the promotion of the record, with fans encouraged to use the hashtag #ImADamVP when tweeting about the record. I’m guessing that I bought in fairly early, given my early placement in the liner notes (two rows under Promotion):

Ben Folds Five liner notes, showing some of their many Vice-Presidents of Promotion

#ImADamVP, along with hundreds of other people.

So after all that, is the record any good? The first thing I note is that the album, as a whole, sounds more mature than earlier efforts. The first song, Erase Me, is a breakup song in the vein of 1997’s Song For The Dumped. It almost works as a sequel of sorts; while Song For The Dumped takes place immediately after “you dumped me on your front porch,” Erase Me is a few weeks removed from the split, after the singer’s ex “turned around in two weeks’ time, replaced me.” Erase Me doesn’t have the out-of-control anger of Dumped, but there might be even more bitterness.

Similarly, I have no reason to think that the Sara(h?) in the title track is the same Sara-spelled-without-an-H that Ben Folds introduced on 2001’s Rockin’ The Suburbs, but I like to think that she broke up with Zak, grew up some, got her shit together, and is looking forward to moving on with life. This song was written by Nick Hornby (who also collaborated with Folds on the album Lonely Avenue) and I highly doubt he set out to write a sequel to Zak & Sara but I am not about to let “facts” stop me.

I think the best song on the album is On Being Frank. I generally prefer the faster, catchier songs, but Ben Folds does have a knack for writing some nicely depressing songs when he sets his mind to it. This one is written from the perspective of Frank Sinatra’s long-time assistant, who finds himself directionless after Sinatra’s death:

I shook the hands
Of mafia dons and presidents
And though they always smiled politely
With a measure of decorum
Still their eyes would scan beyond me
For a glimpse of something more
But now he’s gone
And now they’re gone

Frank doesn’t make good driving music and I can’t see it being a hit single – but then, I didn’t think I’d hear a ballad about a teenaged couple’s abortion on the radio either, so what do I know? Compared to Brick, “I don’t know where I might be going / I rode the wind; the wind stopped blowing” is pretty tame.

Now that we’ve had some nice grown-up songs, the chorus of the song after On Being Frank is “If you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall.” This is by far the silliest song on the record, and after dozens of listens, I’m still not entirely sure what it’s supposed to be about. It’s fun to sing along to, so I don’t really care. And like most songs on this album, there’s a hint of something darker lurking underneath: “Is it all in my mind? I could have sworn I saw it / I thought I was fine, ’til ‘fine’ was what I called it.”

The first single off the album is Do It Anyway, a song that Folds basically wrote on the spot in the middle of a live show. He played the original recording during an interview with Jian Ghomeshi on Q and it was amazing just how much of the song sprang to life fully formed (you can hear it about 14:45 into that video clip). Folds recorded it on his phone, I believe, and I’d pay $1.29 for the iTunes download, just because it makes for such a neat b-side. Most of the song is about facing and ignoring your fears, not letting “good” judgment keep you from great experiences (I’ve already talked about what a questionable decision it may have been to write and release that song, given that Folds may never again be allowed to wisely decline any offer). And much like Draw A Crowd, this is a fun number that takes a melancholy turn: “It’s gonna be so very hard to say and watch the trust and joy all drain from her innocent face, but you must do it anyway / It sucks, but do it anyway.”

Michael Praytor, Five Years Later is a about those people that you never quite shake from your life, even though you never do anything to keep them around. The titular Praytor comes back every five years, “in film, divorced, inspired, engaged, in chemo, born again, and fired.” He also showcases a Ben Folds trademark – the dude loves to use proper names in his songs, and if they ever-so-coincidentally rhyme with what he wants to write about, so much the better. I find this affectation grating in some of Folds’ weaker songs, but I am perfectly fine with it here.

There are also a handful of slower songs on this album that didn’t really stand out as much to me. None of them are bad; just not as noteworthy. The album closes with three straight, and when driving around, I find I skip past them to get to some of the faster songs. This isn’t really fair – I especially enjoy Hold That Thought when I actually listen to it – but so it goes.

I was concerned about the Five three would come up with for their first album in over a decade. They’ve made some of my favourite records and I didn’t want anything that would tarnish their legacy. I’ve often said that Ben Folds is a great songwriter who would benefit from occasionally having an editor. He’s written some of my most-loved songs, along with a handful that I just can’t stand. And while there’s nothing here that will displace my very favourite BF5 song (Philosophy, if you were wondering) (or indeed if you weren’t), The Sound of the Life of the Mind doesn’t have anything that I really don’t care for; we get one classic, and a number of solid additions to the band’s repertoire. Folds has said that the recording sessions left them with enough material for two more albums, and I’m looking forward to them.

SLCR #176: Ben Folds Five (September 29, 2012)

I’ve found myself in a bit of a pickle. I knew this review would be a long one, so I had really good intentions of getting it done right away. Now it’s over a month later and I have a four-show backlog, with three more concerts to come in November. I don’t like spending time on reviews that don’t make me proud, but right now I’ve found a reason to sit right down and shit some out.

Song lyric references, ladies and gentlemen!

In all fairness, in the past month, I started a new job, spent Thanksgiving weekend at the farm, and spent a long weekend in Las Vegas. I also drove 13 hours straight twice in three days for this very show. And it’s not like I got any less lazy lately.

CONCERT REVIEW TROPE: MY HISTORY WITH THE BAND

I never knew why the trio is called Ben Folds Five. I recently saw them on Colbert and they said it was just a joke that nobody thought was funny. Some Googling suggests that they thought the name sounded better than Ben Folds Three. Good enough.

For that matter, at first, I didn’t even know there was a guy named Ben Folds in the band. I thought it was just a statement, like, “Ben folds five towels” or something along those lines.

I had somehow developed a vague awareness of the band, but I first read about and heard BF5 in an issue of CMJ New Music Monthly, back in the days when you might be able to find out about new music via the internet, but you couldn’t actually listen to anything that way. CMJ was expensive for its time ($10 an issue, give or take) but it came packaged with a free CD. I was trying to do a little research online, trying to figure out which issues of CMJ I had (because this is much easier than going downstairs and pulling the CDs off the shelf) and holy crap, you guys, the magazines are all up on Google Books. THIS IS NOT HELPING ME FINISH THE REVIEW. But I do now know that the issue of CMJ that came with BF5’s song Army also had songs by Beulah, The Rentals, Fountains of Wayne, and “Steal My Sunshine” by Len. Wonderful. I also remember CMJ CDs with Squirrel Nut Zippers, OMC, White Town, Alanis Morissette (“You Oughta Know,” so nothing from her Robin Sparkles era), and The Presidents of the United States of America.

I would understand it if I am not selling you on this magazine. But I assure you that for a guy who had nothing more than one Top-40 station, it was a real treat. Mika bought me a subscription for my birthday sometime around 2006 and it just wasn’t the same. I’m sure the internet was hurting them – the magazine folded a few years later – but the CDs no longer felt like the songs had been picked by editors; more like space on the CD had been paid for. At least, I assume that’s how one of Motörhead’s songs about Triple H made the cut. But it’s equally possible that they were doing what they always did and it’s just that my perspective and tastes changed.

Anyway, I bought BF5’s second CD, Whatever And Ever Amen, based on hearing them in CMJ. I became a fan and just kinda kept up with things from there. Ben Folds Five broke up in 2000 and though I did finally get to see Ben Folds twice (on his own in Fargo in 2009, and earlier this year with the Edmonton Symphony), I was always a little bit sad that I never saw the trio. They got back together in 2008 for a one-off show where they played all of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (my favourite BF5 album) in its entirety. It was in North Carolina, a week before I was in North Carolina for a wedding, and I honestly considered changing my flight, booking an extra week off work, finding a hotel for that week, all that good stuff. Part of me still wishes that I’d done that. So about a year ago, when Ben Folds started talking about reuniting with Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee for a new album and tour, I decided that somehow, I’d find my way to a show.

CONCERT REVIEW TROPE: THE TRAVELOGUE

Regina to Minneapolis is about a 13-hour drive if you don’t speed too badly. I was a bit of a wreck coming into Minneapolis (technically, St. Paul) (I bet they hate it when people do that), but I chalked that up to driving at night, going interstate speeds, not knowing where I was going. It didn’t help that my car is bad for road noise and I spent about an hour driving past “NO STOPPING” signs convinced that I had a flat tire due to the WUB WUB WUB WUB WUB noise. The rational part of me said that if I could steer and change lanes just fine, there was nothing wrong with the car (and there wasn’t), but the rational part of me gets shouted down a lot.

I was a wreck for the last hour of the drive back too, and I knew where I was and where I was going at all times. I learned something about myself driving 13 hours straight, and that is that I can only drive for 12 hours straight. But I’m skipping over things, such as the entire trip.

I found my hotel with a minimum of effort. I’d never used a GPS but it turns out they’re handy! Next time on James Reviews Technology From 10 Years Ago, I’m going to give a DVD player a (waitforit) spin. Do I still have to be kind and rewind?

The hotel was very cheap and looked it, but everything was clean enough and that’s about all I care about. I messaged Mika and CRZ to let them know that I’d arrived, and promptly slept really hard.

I woke up at a reasonable hour and headed out to find some breakfast. I settled for crazy American McDonalds, since it was nearby. This outing turned into multiple shopping trips, as my work no longer gives me a cell phone, and my pay-as-you-go Android phone (Galaxy Gio; recommendation to avoid, though it IS really cheap) won’t actually let you pay-as-you-go-into-the-United-States. My only means of communications was Facebook chat and FaceTime from my iPad via the hotel’s spotty Wi-Fi, so I’d head out, buy stuff, bring it back, check the iPad, head out some more, buy stuff, bring it back, etc. I was able to finally find Diet A&W Cream Soda, and I am saddened to report that it just isn’t as magical as the full-sugar variety. I also got limited edition Candy Corn Oreos, and – spoiler! – they weren’t very good.

Now, this review will wind up posted on CRZ’s message board if I ever finish it. It will also be emailed to people such as my mom, who didn’t read wrestling recaps during the Attitude Era, doesn’t really get what those words mean in that order, and probably thought my days of meeting internet strangers were long over. At least this time my dad didn’t make me have a secret code phrase to be used in the event I was kidnapped but allowed to call him but not allowed to tell him that I’d been kidnapped. (This is not a joke.) Since I’m writing this so late after the fact, I can add that my mom was seemingly much less concerned for my well-being, as she saw Facebook pictures of our historic meeting and only asked “who’s the guy with the hair?”

if I had to be kidnapped, I can think of nobody better to do it than CRZ, who picked me up at my hotel (on the second try) and introduced me to one of America’s culinary wonders. “Have you ever had a taco with a shell made out of Doritos?” I had not. I had somehow forgotten that such a thing existed and would have been super sad to return home without this experience. I can report that it tasted exactly like you’d expect, and should he ever feel the need, CRZ is more than welcome to drive 13 hours for the Pizza Hut hot dog stuffed crust monstrosity that we have here now.

We also visited his house; his workplace (outside only, so I’m not a YouTube sensation); a crazy surplus store that sells foreign keyboards, toilet decorations, and stoplights; a carpeted grocery store full of track athletes in their uniforms which exposed more butt cheek than I’d ever seen at a grocery store; and a drugstore full of holiday decorations with blinking lights (see above, re: YouTube sensation). We also went downtown so that I’d have an idea where the Ben Folds Five show would be and where I should park.

It’s okay, I’d forgotten that this was a concert review too.

After getting dropped off at my hotel, I felt no need for a pre-concert meal and instead headed straight downtown. CRZ’s instructions clashed slightly with my GPS – my GPS likes to clash ever so slightly with everyone’s instructions, as it turns out – but between the two of them I found a place to ditch the car and called it good. This was a risky venture due to my superhuman ability to get completely turned around and lost in even the most familiar of surroundings. Mika laughs at me because every time I come up from the underground parking at the mall, I can’t tell which direction is The Bay and which is Sears. It’s less amusing when you’re by yourself and you run the very real risk of forever losing your car in a foreign country. You might think I am making a joke. I assure you that the amount of effort I put into remembering where I parked was massive.

The show was at the Orpheum, continuing my two-show streak of seeing Ben Folds at lovely, new-to-me venues. Sorry, club in Fargo, you were fine enough but didn’t make the cut. Bob Dylan was once part-owner of the Orpheum, but the internet tells me that he sold his stake in it long ago. I didn’t see him there so that must be right.

I had never really looked at my ticket when it arrived in the mail, so I was delighted to find that I was sitting in the sixth row. Actually, it was the third, but there were a few extra rows of chairs set up at the front, filled with people wearing custom Ben Folds Five shirts that read “How’s the view back there?” on the back. Some sort of fan club deal or internet presale, I imagine.

CONCERT REVIEW TROPE: BEING SURROUNDED BY DRUNKEN YAHOOS

My seat was fantastic, apart from the seatmate on my left. While I played Angry Birds and Doodle Jump waiting for the show to start, this young man had a very animated discussion with his friend about how the show was going to be legit. No, wait – legitimate. He then went into detail about how legit an event has to be in order to merit the additional two syllables. I was fine with this up to a point. But the beer kept flowing, and nearly spilling, and soon I was sitting next to the one guy in the theatre who figures that he’s going to stand up for the whole show while everyone else is seated. His logic was that “it’s bullshit, man.” Eventually, the guy behind us convinced him of the error of his ways. I was in America, so I assume handguns were involved. I don’t know, I didn’t turn around.

CONCERT REVIEW TROPE: THE HALF-HEARTED ACTUAL REVIEW PART

Our opener was Kate Miller-Heidke, who you might remember from that time I saw Ben Folds in Fargo. This was a fine performance, though I think I preferred her set in Fargo. Her Minneapolis set was very short – 30 minutes on the nose. It’s rare that I wish an opening act stayed longer. She did sing one song that kinda felt like it should have come with a trigger warning. Not that someone can’t sing about such things but it seemed out of place in an otherwise fun set that included her covering The Real Slim Shady. I think the same whenever Ben Folds plays Brick; I know it was a hit but subject-matter-wise, it just doesn’t feel like it fits with the rest of the evening.

Finally, Ben Folds Five took the stage for a show I’d been waiting over a decade for. At the start, it felt like it wasn’t going to be able to live up to how I’d built it up in my head. The first half of the show mixed a lot of new songs with some of the slower BF5 tunes – Missing The War, Alice Childress, Selfless Cold & Composed, Magic, and of course Brick – and it felt like there could have been some more energy. (Though I was truly delighted to get Jackson Cannery, which is not only a great song but also a great fake name to use when you have to fill out a web form.) But by the time the show ended, I thought it was one of the best that I’ve been to all year. I went to the show with one song request, Philosophy, and I was thrilled that they played it. Better, they followed it up with Kate, Song for the Dumped, and Army, making for four back-to-back BF5 classics.

In fact, here’s the whole setlist since someone was kind enough to post it online:

01. Michael Praytor, Five Years Later
02. Missing the War
03. Hold That Thought
04. Jackson Cannery
05. Selfless, Cold and Composed
06. Erase Me
07. Alice Childress
08. Sky High
09. Landed
10. Magic
11. Battle of Who Could Care Less
12. Do It Anyway
13. Brick
14. Draw a Crowd
15. Best Imitation of Myself
16. Philosophy
17. Kate
18. Song for the Dumped
19. Army
~encore break~
20. Underground (preceded by people yelling song requests and an impromptu number called “We Already Started Playing Another Song”)
21. One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces

Fans of Ben Folds’ solo stuff might have been disappointed; only one song (Landed) came from the solo albums. Everything else was released by Ben Folds Five, including eleven songs from the first two albums alone. There were only two songs from Reinhold Messner; I KNEW I should have spent that extra week in North Carolina. But apart from that, I was really pleased with the setlist. I didn’t want this to just be a Ben Folds solo show with some extra musical accompaniment.

At one point, Ben was talking about one part of one song that he always screws up and someone shouted out “DO IT ANYWAY!” It occurred to me that writing a song called Do It Anyway and releasing it as a single might have been a bad idea. He’ll be hearing that for the rest of his life whenever he doesn’t feel 100% in to something. “I’ve always wanted to skydive but I’m terrified of heights.” “Dessert? I don’t know, I’m really full.” “But if I pull the pin on this grenade, we’ll all die!”

After waiting so long (and driving so long), it was hard not to feel like the show was over too soon. Looking at the setlist, it’s clear that the show was show-length and I had nothing to complain about. And by and large, I got all the songs I wanted. Ending on One Angry Dwarf was a highlight. But all too quickly, we were headed out the door while the theme to The Rockford Files played. The guy sitting to my right (i.e., not the drunk) really enjoyed the reference to Rockford in the song Battle of Who Could Care Less and I’m pretty sure the actual Rockford theme was his favourite song of the night.

Following my escape from downtown Minneapolis, I grabbed a late dinner at Wendy’s (this would turn out to be a bad idea), stopped at my hotel to eat and wash up, and then headed back out to meet CRZ and his wife Kim (who I also know from these very internets) at the Turf Club to see The Zoobombs.

CONCERT REVIEW TROPE: ARBITRARY AND CONVENIENT RULES

In the past, I have used “I don’t want to review shows by friends of friends” to shirk my writing obligations, and I’m going to do that here to avoid writing a separate review, even though none of us had even heard of The Zoobombs before. CRZ was there to see the opening acts, Birthday Suits and Still Pacific, which both include people that he knows. Good enough for me. I arrived too late to see either of them, so I’ll officially review them as follows: A+++++++ five stars awesome would see again. CRZ, feel free to tell them they can quote me.

I would actually go see The Zoobombs again, though we don’t get a ton of Japanese bands through middle-of-nowhere, Canada, so it’s unlikely that I’ll ever get the opportunity. Wikipedia tells me they’re from Tokyo. It also tells me that they’ve opened for The Flaming Lips and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and that their bass player is named Moostop, which is fantastic. (I don’t want to speak for Wikipedia, so I’ll clarify that I added the last bit, though I think the awesomeness of the name Moostop was implied in the article.)

From the show, I can tell you that they’re very loud and very good and they aren’t going to bother to stop just so you can clap for them. They WILL stop if the drummer – whose name is Pocky, says Wikipedia – wrecks his bass drum from rocking too hard (“Broken,” he said) and they need to borrow a bass drum from one of the openers, but that’s it.

CONCERT REVIEW TROPE: CHICKEN

Once The Zoobombs were done wrecking up the place and CRZ had bought one of everything, Kim said “Chris tells me you’ve never had White Castle.” Which I have not, and didn’t even know was a thing in this part of America. For ease of navigation, it was decided that I would go back to my hotel, and they’d arrive shortly thereafter with food. This is how I ate four fast-food meals in one day, and why I woke up with the most incredible food hangover I ever did have. Am I the only one who gets that? If you eat too much bad-for-you food too close to bed, you wake up feeling hung over even though you didn’t drink?

It was worth it, though. I’ve been craving White Castle ever since I got back, but even if I didn’t like the food, it was worth it just for the sight of CRZ and Kim showing up with a freaking cardboard SUITCASE full of cheeseburgers. I mean, I knew that Crave Cases existed. And I knew from the size of it how many cheeseburgers there would be inside, but I still wasn’t ready for the actual sight of 30 cheeseburgers all lined up and ready to go. And because three people obviously need more than 30 cheeseburgers, they also showed up with bags (multiple!) of chicken rings. These are exactly what you’d expect – chicken finger type things in ring form. I do not know why they are rings. I do not care. They are tasty in ranch dip and I generally don’t even care for dip.

I forgot to give them the leftovers when they went home, so my room smelled like White Castle cheeseburgers (which is to say, Lipton onion soup mix) all night. This is why I had dreams where people were feeding me and I was begging them to stop. And in the morning, I didn’t have so much as a glass of water until I made it to Fergus Falls, Minnesota and their fine Subway. You know I’m coming off a bad eating day if I’m really pumped for vegetables. I made up for it later by buying a jar of fried apples at Bismarck’s Cracker Barrel, but they are, to this date, unopened.

SLCR #166: Ben Folds with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (March 29, 2012)

Can I type well enough on an iPad to write a concert review?

Can I sleep? (No.) So I may as well try.

What does this thing autocorrect “SLCR” into? Evidently nothing, or “slur” if you write it in lowercase.

I am lying awake in a bed in a motel in Edmonton. I have lots of family in this town, but apart from funerals, it seems that all of my Edmonton trips involve me driving into town, poking around West Edmonton Mall despite there being little of interest there, going to a show, sleeping, and leaving. I don’t feel right taking advantage of someone’s hospitality if I’m not going to spend any time actually visiting. So I hotel it up, always at the same Super 8-slash-truckstop because one time, Dave booked a room for us here because we were going to wrestling and the Super 8 was centrally located between the big mall and the arena. That’s how I make my life decisions: go with what someone else chose for me over a decade ago under different circumstances.

Yesterday’s concert was John K. Samson, the lead singer of The Weakerthans, but since I told my Edmonton history, I may as well talk about Ben Folds instead, since that’s why I’m here. I wonder if there’s a precedent for writing concert reviews out of order? I know I’ve never posted them out of order. If only I wasn’t too lazy to call the front desk and get a Wi-Fi passcode, I could look these things up. Or, more likely, I’d read a bunch of garbage from my Google Reader instead of doing this.

So far, this is no more annoying than typing on the netbook used to be. Check that – editing is a slower process, and using anything beyond the most basic punctuation is a bit of a drag.

I’d seen Ben Folds once before, in Fargo, an eight-hour drive from Regina. Edmonton is also an eight-hour drive from Regina. Mayhaps my city has a force field. You’d think he’d like it there; its pun potential really is unparalleled.

Regina also has a symphony orchestra. When I found out that Folds was going to be playing with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, I immediately began my campaign to bring him to Regina. I did this by asking the Regina Symphony nicely via Twitter. I am sad to report that social media has disappointed me for the first time, and the Regina Symphony was not willing to rearrange their schedule at the last minute at great expense in order to satisfy my whim.

I might even have said “please.” If not, I blame the character limit.

Still stinging from the rejection, I made the long drive from Regina to Edmonton, filled with memories of that Fargo show. It had been worth the drive, but a symphony show is a different beast. By its very nature, it has to be more structured, with less room for playing around. I have the DVD that Folds released of his shows with the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra. I haven’t watched it in a while, and when I got this ticket, I intentionally avoided so much as looking at the track list because I was expecting a lot of similarities.

I found the Super 8 on the first try. You’d think I’d have that pretty much cased by now, but you don’t know of my legendary ability to get lost in my own house. I also found the mall on the first try. The Winspear Centre, on the other hand, that one took some doing. The Google Maps map was actually pretty accurate, but some badly timed glare meant a lot of extra driving around for me. I only tried to go the wrong way down one one-way street, so that was a success.

The venue, it should be noted, is beautiful. Similar in size and function to the Conexus Arts Centre in Regina or TCU Place in Saskatoon, but much more attractive. I felt underdressed. I probably should have considered that this was an actual symphony concert and not just a rock show. But then the conductor took the stage via bicycle, so maybe I need not worry.

I drive eight hours to see Ben Folds because he rarely comes to Canada. I think this is the first show of his that I’ve heard of outside Toronto or Vancouver. Judging by the crowd reaction, a full tour is long overdue. The guy got a standing ovation just for showing up, opening notes of songs got raucous applause, and the crowd knew to sing the horn section of Army without being prompted.

Looking now at the track list for that DVD, I am delighted to see that we got a lot of new songs. As with that show, he opened with Zak and Sara and followed that up with Smoke, and the encore was still The Luckiest, but there was a lot of new stuff in there. Some of the songs hadn’t been released when that DVD came out, including Jesusland, Picture Window, Cologne, Landed, and Effington, which featured an eight-person choir singing “If there’s a god, he’s laughing at us and our football team.” That same choir also sang the “kiss my ass kiss my ass goodbye now” part of One Angry Dwarf & 200 Solemn Faces, which might make them the best choir ever.

At one point, as happens at every Ben Folds show, someone yelled out “ROCK THIS BITCH!” Someone else responded with “NEVER AGAIN!” I laughed. I don’t know if Folds was serious with his threat to quit playing Rock This Bitch (basically, music and lyrics made up on the spot) but I’ve seen him twice and he’s done it twice. He started by giving the different instruments melodies to play, then ramped it up. The saxophones were instructed to “just do whatever you feel like.” The final version involved a mariachi trumpet solo, a tympani solo, the choir (of course), and  lyrics along the lines of “this is what happens when you give the piano guy an orchestra in Edmonton.” This was all great fun and everyone loved it, treating Ben and the orchestra to a raucous ovation. “That was the perfect lead-in for what’s coming up next,” said Folds, and you’ve never heard to opening notes of a song about a teenager’s abortion greeted with so much laughter.

In between songs, Folds confirmed that there will be a new Ben Folds Five album before the year is up, and he talked about the histories of some of the songs, but mostly he just tried to deal with the people yelling WOOOO and WE LOVE YOU BEN and whatnot. I cannot stress enough just how bonkers this crowd was. Dude was BELOVED.

There were two sets of just under an hour each, followed by the “surprise” encore (“It’s just a coincidence that they all have sheet music ready to go.”). Then Ben left, and then the orchestra left, and then I left. I was halfway through the lobby when people started making noise about Ben coming back, so I snuck back in to catch the second encore, which was just Ben and his piano for a few songs, including Army and Annie Waits. And once he was done those, I waited for the lights to come up before leaving because I was taking no chances.

Do I need to say this was fantastic? Because it totally was. Songs I love, expertly played (Folds really is an amazing pianist and I didn’t even talk about the orchestra, who were great, and some of the arrangements of the songs were really interesting, like there was one where I was sure the choir was singing, but they weren’t, it was all the instruments, and that was neat, and one of the songs had really cool percussion parts and I’m sad I can’t remember the specific song right now and I am not editing this sentence because it is now very late and editing things on the iPad is not what I want to be doing and sure I will email this to myself later for final editing before I send it into the world but I am not going to fix this part because it has become a matter of pride or principle or something) and an audience who was thrilled just to be there and their enthusiasm elevated everything from start to finish. I’m calling it: better than Fargo, and I liked that show a lot.

I meant the concert I saw there, but really, that sentence works just as well if you assume I’m talking about the movie.

SLCR #143: Ben Folds (October 23, 2009)

This is not the furthest I’ve traveled to see a show, but it’s the furthest I’ve traveled specifically to see a show. We did some shopping while in Fargo, and when we told the store clerk that we’d driven 10 hours the day before to get there, her reaction, though unspoken, indicated that she wasn’t about to be driving ten hours to visit our stinking city.

In my defense, I thought it was only an eight-hour drive (each way) when I bought the tickets. They must have moved Fargo a hundred miles or so since the last time I checked Google Maps.

So, why the trip? Apart from my fondness for fine American breakfast cereals and diet soft drinks, I’ve been trying to see Ben Folds in concert for close to 15 years, I figure. Not trying very hard, mind you – dude has never come very close to where I am, and I have never done the same for him. Though last year, Ben Folds Five was reuniting for one night only in North Carolina (a week before we were going there for a wedding), and I was awfully tempted to go to the show (and, accordingly, change my flight, take an extra week off work, get a hotel, rent a car, and buy tickets on eBay). Ultimately, this wasn’t going to work out and I’m still a bit sad about that.

After a bored night spent poking around the web turned up a Ben Folds show in Fargo, I decided that this was likely as close as he was going to come to Regina, so I picked up a pair of tickets and convinced Mika to take a few days off work. Having done so, it’s a lock that he’ll announce his Canadian tour any day now.

I first heard Ben Folds Five many years ago on a CMJ magazine sampler CD. You don’t hear a lot of piano in popular music these days (or at least I don’t; I don’t know what you listen to) and so that stuck out, as did the sense of humour in the lyrics. Many of Ben’s songs showcase his wit (I’d say it’s almost gone too far in that direction on recent albums), which makes it a little odd that Ben Folds Five’s most famous song was a bleak little number about a teenage abortion gone wrong. True story: I once put that song on a CD for a (female) friend of mine, and someone else said I wouldn’t put a slow piano song on a CD for a girl unless I was hitting on her. Chicks dig songs about abortions, I guess?

Anyway. With a ten-hour drive to make to a concert with a suspiciously early start time (doors at 6:00, show at 6:30), we decided that the best course of action would be to head out the day before the show. Before leaving, we double-checked a few items: passports, concert tickets, and the credit card used to book the hotel room. I figured anything else could be replaced en route if need be. The long drive went by oddly quickly and we soon found ourselves in Fargo’s finest Super 8. They have free waffles!

My newfound (and Albert-mandated) BFF Jeff is also from Regina, but was planning on making the drive down with his friend Mandi on the day of the show. That day, Mika and I were walking around the Fargo mall at noon, when my BlackBerry buzzed. I have kept this conversation open in the chat program for over a week because I want to make sure I quote it verbatim:

Jeff: Oh my god I am dumb as fuck
Jeff: I’m outside of Winnipeg and just realized I didn’t bring my bags
Jeff: Which included my passport
Jeff: What are the odds they’ll accept a sob story?
James: Ohhhhhhh shit.

For non-locals, Winnipeg is about six hours from Regina and four hours from Fargo. The concert was about six hours away. There would be no turning back. I tried to sound as reassuring as I could that mayyyyybe if he had lots of other ID and got a sympathetic border guard, he’d make it. Secretly, I held out no hope. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Mika’s face looking as sad as when I showed her the chat window. "I would be SO mad at myself," she said. I agreed, and we decided that Jeff didn’t have a prayer.

Two hours later, the text message came: "Safely across the border :)" It was a Christmas miracle. Jeff and Mandi even beat us to the venue named The Venue.

Let me say a few words about the venue named The Venue. It is what The Odeon wishes it was. It holds a lot of people, has an upper balcony, the temperature is reasonable, there are seats around the edge, the sound is really good, it’s clean, and the people are nice. The doors opened precisely when they said and the show ran on time. I would rather drive 10 hours to Fargo to see a show than drive two hours to the Odeon. Having said that, Mika wouldn’t let me drive back this weekend for Queensryche.

Mika and I had our tickets mailed to us, while Jeff and Mandi’s tickets were at the will-call. As Jeff was getting his tickets, Mika and I went inside, but before we got to the stage, I said "maybe we should wait back here, just in case there’s a problem." Jeff caught up with us, laughing. "I told them my name and they said I wasn’t on the list. And then they told me to just walk in." For serious. This dude also lost his WWE tickets in August and still got into the arena somehow. I do not know how he does it, but the world does not work this way for anyone else. I must find a way to harness this power for my own benefit.

The opening act – who took the stage precisely at 6:30, as promised, was Kate Miller-Heidke. I can’t say I knew anything about her, and wasn’t expecting the Australian accent. I definitely wasn’t expecting the brief operatic blasts in otherwise traditional guitar-and-vocal songs (or during her cover of Britney Spears’ "Toxic"). Ben Folds later said that she currently had the #1 album in Australia, and Wikipedia suggests that there was some truth to this. I suppose Folds has spent a lot of time in Australia, and her sense of humour would seem to match his. Later on, she would come back on stage to pose for pictures simulating an on-stage meltdown. She also dueted on You Don’t Know Me, but that’s probably less interesting to the Australian media. At any rate, she fell into the "pleasant surprises" category of opening acts.

I’d heard a few Ben Folds concerts over time – both the official live releases and a few bootlegs – and the crowds always seemed to really be into the shows. I had always assumed these were fortuitous recordings, but having now experienced this in person, I have to wonder if maybe it’s like this every time out. Not only did people sing along with every song, even the relatively obscure ones, but they called out requests for songs that I hadn’t even heard of. From what I can tell, Ben Folds tours a lot – but I guess not around here, so maybe there was an abnormally high number of die-hards in attendance. This dude named Matt started talking to us, and he mentioned that he was there with a group of people who had driven 13 hours from Missoula, Montana, so we hadn’t traveled the furthest for the show.

Really, the show was pretty much exactly what I had been led to expect, and that’s not a bad thing at all. The crowd was rabid, Ben beat the hell out of his piano, there was a lot of interaction with the audience, and the setlist was varied (and felt a lot like it was being made up on the fly; if Folds did come through this way, I’d think about seeing two shows in two days because there might be some variation there). We got a Fargo-centric version of Rock This Bitch (which gets new music and lyrics every night) about Subway restaurants, a building that had been covered in bras, and Fargo the movie (this was the only reference to the movie during the entire weekend; I’d imagine the residents of Fargo are sick of the "oh yah, real good yah" jokes, and having just recently rewatched the movie in preparation for the trip, I was surprised to see that Fargo isn’t really in the movie in any substantial way; also, I like semi-colons and dragging sentences on forever when I get on a roll).

The set included most of the songs I wanted to hear, and were taken from all along Ben’s career. I’d list them, but that sounds like it would be boring for all of us. Most of the songs were faster ones – no Brick to be found to bring the party down – though there was a slower number he’d co-written with Nick Hornby. The album is coming out sometime next year, he said. Also, as was done on the live album (or maybe the bootleg, who can remember), the crowd sang harmonies on Not The Same and imitated the horn section on Army. Hiro’s Song was played entirely on this… box… thing. It had a name. I don’t remember what it was. It was neat.

The all-too-brief encore was kicked off with Bitches Ain’t Shit, a Dr. Dre song which Ben covered and turned into a slow piano ballad. He’s retired the song because he didn’t want to be known for what is, essentially, a novelty cover, but he seems to unretire it whenever he feels like it. To help him along, he pulled a few fans from the crowd, one of who was our new friend Matt who, I have to say, completely nailed it. And maybe I should list a few more songs he played – Effington, Boxing, One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces, Free Coffee, Annie Waits, Zak and Sara, All U Can Eat, Kate, Jesusland – just to drive down the ratio of songs with "Bitch" in the title.

All in all, a fantastic show. The live albums do a respectable job of capturing the experience, but being there was much more fun. I had said that I used to be more of a Ben Folds fan in the past, but seeing the show brought it all back. Five stars, and probably the best show I’ll see all year (though Wayne Newton always has a puncher’s chance). It was so good that I wasn’t even fixated on the early ending time like my old-ass self usually is, though I did enjoy the dinner we had after the show, and I assume Jeff enjoyed his cart full of crazy American Cheetos.

UPCOMING SHOWS
 – Nov. 14: Stone Temple Pilots
 – Dec. 15: Wayne Newton

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