Barenaked Ladies

Barenaked Ladies
Event on 2013-07-15 17:30:00

Supporting Acts: Boothby Graffoe

Ben Folds Five

“I’d love for people to hear this record clean,” says Ben Folds of Ben Folds Five’s new The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind. “Like they never even heard of us before. If no one knew who we were and we put this record out, I think that would be terribly interesting.”

Sorry, Ben, but that ship has sailed. Ben Folds Five were among the most distinctive and inventive bands of the alternative era, beloved for their kinetic live shows and piano-powered popcraft. Now, more than a decade after the Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based trio first said farewell, Ben Folds Five are back and clichés be damned, they’re better than ever. The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind (ImaVeePee Records/Sony Music Entertainment) makes it plain that the years apart have only served to amplify the band’s already estimable gifts. Songs like the ebullient first single, “Do It Anyway,” or drummer Darren Jessee’s elegiac “Sky High” illustrate an increased subtlety as well as a soulfulness born of a truly inimitable group dynamic.

Folds, Jessee, and Robert Sledge first united in 1994, drawing immediate notice for their sardonic smarts, high-energy harmonies and unstoppable melodies. In 1995, the band’s self-titled debut was rightfully hailed as a guitar-free pop oasis amidst the grungy industrial wasteland that was mid-90s rock. 1997’s Whatever And Ever Amen proved the trio’s popular breakthrough, with the landmark single, “Brick,” fueling worldwide sales in excess of 2 million. Where many bands would’ve happily stuck to the formula, in 1999 BFF returned with The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, an audacious and inventive collection that yielded still another milestone with the timeless “Army.”

Ben Folds Five amicably parted ways shortly after the 20th Century’s end, eager to explore fresh terrain after seven years of intense concentration on the band. Folds, of course, embarked on a storied solo career, replete with countless veers and variations spanning smash albums, experimental collaborations, production, philanthropy, extensive work and performances with symphony orchestras around the world and even a role as judge on the NBC a cappella singing competition, The Sing Off. An exceptional singer/songwriter in his own right, Jessee earned widespread acclaim and a fervent fan following with his eclectic pop combo, Hotel Lights. Sledge, a true master of the bass guitar, also worked producing, writing and performing regularly as a session bassist and solo artist. In 2008, MySpace reached out to Folds, wondering whether the Five might consider reuniting for their “Front To Back” concert series.

“Nobody had ever asked us if we’d do anything, because they’d made the assumption that we wouldn’t,” Folds says. “I called Robert and Darren and they said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ It went really well and it opened our minds to the possibility of recording.”

The hometown performance – which saw the band playing Reinhold Messner in its entirety – reopened lines of communication and it wasn’t long before they reassembled to record a trio of tracks for Ben’s 2011 career-spanning anthology, The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective.

“We very consciously decided to stick to the original blueprint,” Folds says of the sessions, “but what we found out was that we didn’t enjoy that as much as we did trying new ideas. We were so excited by the fragments that we had, we thought we should get together again and record.”

A full-on new album was approached with no little caution – “just to make sure this was something we all wanted to do,” says Folds – but the creative lure proved irresistible. In January 2012, Ben Folds Five assembled at Folds’ own Ben’s Studio (built in 1964 by Chet Atkins as the historic RCA Victor Nashville Sound Studios). They adopted a simple and classic method of recording, with piano, bass, and drums all within 10 feet of each other in the legendary studio’s big room. To allow for complete focus on the music, the band enlisted co-producer Joe Pisapia (Guster, k.d. Lang), who teamed with Folds’ longtime studio collaborator, engineer/mixer Joe Costa, behind the board.

“The band does a lot of talking, a lot of throwing ideas around,” Jessee says, “so it was good to have someone there to keep an eye on the album, helping us pull it together. We spent weeks experimenting with chord changes and arrangements and different feels. We needed an extra set of ears to help weed it out a little.”

Armed with a cache of hooks, melodies, and other intriguing ideas, Ben Folds Five embraced a loose improvisational tack, letting nature and inspiration take its course. Songs like “Hold That Thought” or the complex, keys-pounding “Erase Me” capture the synergistic give and take amongst the players, a methodology that Folds says is akin to passing “a musical peace pipe.”

“In some ways, what we were experimenting with was finding our moments,” Jessee says. “The way we approach a song now, there aren’t strict guidelines going into it. It’s just a more open environment and I think there’s a lot more trust going on in the playing.”

“That comes from us challenging each other a little bit,” Sledge says. “Well, not just a little bit. I think we all go for this kind of virtuosity when we play with each other, because we know that these are the two other guys that can handle it. If you play something insanely hard, I’m gonna top that and play it right back to you. All three of us can do that to each other and that’s really uncommon.”

“I’ve played with really fantastic musicians over the last 12 years,” Folds says, “people who are at the top of their game. What Robert and Darren are are artists. They’re artists at their instruments. Plus, we grew up together, so there’s a chemistry and a focus that we have that I don’t think any of us have with anyone else.”

Folds’ lyrical acuity remains equally idiosyncratic, his trademark wisecrackery and wry character portrayals now edged with significantly more experience and insight. In the same spirit as the band’s intimate instrumental interplay, songs like the mordant “On Being Frank” or the rolling title track (penned with friend and collaborator, novelist Nick Hornby) see Folds exploring myriad themes of letting go, of shattering the boundaries between identity and environment.

“I was thinking a lot about loss of ego,” Folds says. “That’s a big part of your 40-something-year-old psychological development.”

To subsidize the project, Ben Folds Five teamed with Pledge Music for a direct-to-fans campaign, devoting a substantial portion of all funds raised to support music education and music therapy programs, a charitable cause near and dear to the band’s hearts. Thanks to their loyal audience, the effort proved wildly successful.

“There was officially no commercial pressure the morning after we put the album up on PledgeMusic,” Folds says. “We put it up at midnight and by morning, the album was paid for.”

“It feels like we’re directly connected to the fans,” says Sledge, “the way we would if we were just playing clubs and building the band up from the grassroots.”

A series of summer festival performances kicked off in June at upstate New York’s Mountain Jam 2012, setting the stage for an epic 2012/2013 world tour. What’s more, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind burst into the top 10 of the SoundScan/Billboard 200 upon its September release – the band’s highest ever chart debut. All three members see Ben Folds Five carrying on for the foreseeable future, the band now part of a bigger picture and not the be-all and end-all of their youth. Jessee is currently penning a new cycle of songs, while Sledge is and remains an in-demand session player. For his part, Folds has already penciled in a 2014 symphony orchestra tour, at which point, he notes, Ben Folds Five “turns into a pumpkin.”

“Like everything else, we’re just gonna play it by ear, see what happens,” Sledge says. “But I don’t think the word ‘break-up’ will happen again.”

Certainly among the most accomplished and enthusiastic records of their brilliant career, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind makes it crystal clear: the return of Ben Folds Five is most assuredly not an exercise in Nineties nostalgia. Rather, this dazzling collection stands as testament to a classic band’s revived – and enduring – creative partnership.

“It’s kind of demystified,” Jessee says. “We had all that stuff happen when we were younger and now it’s more about making ourselves happy with what we’re doing. Hopefully that carries over to our fans who have been waiting for this record.”

“For all of us, the only way it could work is if we dropped the egos,” Folds says. “I believe really strongly that the record we made is not a record we could’ve made had we just continued as a band.”

Guster

“I guess we could have called it Live at Various Theaters” says drummer Brian Rosenworcel, referencing the fact that the songs on the album were culled from many performances and not just one. “Actually, I wish we’d called it Live at Various Theaters. Is it too late to call it Live at Various Theaters?”

It’s been eight years since Guster released a proper live album – 2004’s upbeat Guster On Ice – and on January 1st, the renowned live band will offer up new live material with Guster: Live Acoustic. Recorded during their 2012 acoustic tour, the sixteen tracks are a musical tribute to the varied faces and places that made last year’s travels one of the most remarkable in Guster’s impressive career.

For a band that has experienced a drastic sonic overhaul during its two decades, the acoustic presentation acts as the glue, bridging material as varied as the somber, percussive “Rocketship” from 1996’s Goldfly and the pop charmer “Do You Love Me” from 2010’s Easy Wonderful. The band digs deep and rediscovers “Rise and Shine,” a B-side from Ganging Up on the Sun, as well as reinventing 2006’s “Beginning of the End” as an angry acoustic hoe-down of sorts.

The acoustic sound is nothing new for Guster, who began their career in the early 90s writing songs in their dorm room at Tufts University on acoustic guitars and hand drums. After 1999’s seminal Lost and Gone Forever launched their stripped down sound into the national spotlight, the band threw a wrench into their instrumentation and surprised fans with a deeper, more textured album, Keep It Together (2003). The trajectory only continued with the more experimental Ganging Up on the Sun (2006), which featured the hit “Satellite” and saw the band branching out with its arrangements and styles. Pop masterpiece Easy Wonderful (2010) was hailed as their most mature and complete album-to-date.

Last spring’s unorthodox, stripped-down tour is par for the course for a band that has always done what’s necessary to keep things interesting for themselves as they’ve transitioned from college band to vaulted songsmiths. The band has been known to open up for themselves in disguise as psychedelic rockers “Trippin’ Balls” and as Christian Southern Rock outfit “The Peace Soldiers.” And Guster has joined forces with the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Symphony in recent years, with another show scheduled with the Dallas Symphony in January.

Singer Ryan Miller has branched out into film scoring, soundtracking 2012’s beloved Sundance standout Safety Not Guaranteed, and bandmate Adam Gardner has achieved great success greening the music industry through his non-profit “Reverb,” which works with bands, artists, and venues to reduce the music industry’s environmental footprint.

While the members of the band mainly stick to the acoustic guitars on Live Acoustic, the songs are fleshed out with Charlene Huang on violin and April Guthrie on cello – helping to bring out the parts and arrangements that have made Guster’s studio recordings such mainstays.

Rosenworcel plays a drum kit adorned with glockenspiel and percussive drums like djembe and hand snare, while newest member Luke Reynolds alternates with bandmates Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner on acoustic guitar, bass, piano and ukelele. The melodies and harmonies that have made Guster famous have never been more purely on display. Guster: Live Acoustic is an album that pulls from an impressive fifteen year discography and makes a case for Guster’s place amongst the best pop bands and songwriters of their era.

at Merriweather Post Pavilion
10475 Little Patuxent Parkway
Columbia, United States

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