Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ben Folds Live at Beacon Theater 12.14.10

Broadway & 75th was not so lonely Tuesday Night
(Photo by Deena Bahu)

Having been to four previous Folds concerts that were all life changing in their own unique way—I feared losing the legacy of Ben Folds Live in my mind. Understandably so. But, I fought through it and saw Folds at the Beacon Theater, conveniently located less than two blocks from my apartment.

I’m here to say folks, Folds still has it, big time! He’s the consummate pro at delivering an enjoyably unique performance every night, all the while seemingly having a blast while doing it.

I personally think Folds is at his best when armed with only a piano and beer driven, raucous audience. I feared with a five-piece band, all of the shenanigans and improv would be cut for a professional grade, adult rock show. Fortunately, the CATCHY chorus from the opening song throws that notion of boring maturity out the picture window, “I’m a fuckin’ redneck…I like to shoot the shit and do some chillin’ I guess…you fuck with me and I’ll kick your ass.” The song was catchy BEFORE I knew the quote was taken directly off Levi Johnston’s Facebook page or even who exactly Levi Johnston is.

The Breakdown: seven songs from his Lonely Avenue collaboration with author (High Fidelity, Songbook) Nick Hornby (a great album by the by), 6.5 (“Hiro’s Song” was a B-side) from his quintessential solo album Rockin the Suburbs, three Ben Folds Five classics (sorry folks, no “Brick”), two 10 minute improv jams (one revolved around “Free Bird”) and one Ke$ha cover—28 songs of totally joyous Ben Folds elation.

Folds is touring the Lonely Avenue album with an ironically numbered five-piece band (Ben Folds Five…was three). Between that and the majestic scene and landscape at the Beacon Theater, the sound was rich and full as a California Cabernet, though Folds’ charm is more reminiscent of a Carolina porch PBR. The ever upscale Beacon had Beck’s…good enough.

After the Devo prog-rock, poet with a fun name tribute, “Saskia Hamilton” and a rip-roaring version of “Bastard” that finds me always wondering how they’ll recreate that 10-part harmony in the bridge—Folds gave the theater THE moment of silence they craved. This allows the drunks and knee slapping comedians to shout their comments. Naturally, “Rock This Bitch” and “Free Bird” were the two prime choices for this mission.

Folds took it all in for a brief moment, made a funny face, and warned “be careful what you wish for young lady” before launching into a 10-minute version of “Free Bird.” This particular version Ben chose to improv the lyrics about how he took an oath as an artist to play the song when requested, but he didn’t know the words. It then blended itself into a “kill two birds with one stone” version of “Rock This Bitch (the Free Bird version).” Epic.

Fans like me that enjoy just Ben and a piano, were treated to a short four-song solo set. The set ended with “The Last Polka” which when played solo sounds like a show-tune and college fight song played pureed in Bose blender. It’s astounding. Half way through the song, Folds stopped and admitted guiltily that he had a “brain freeze” before picking up where he left off.

Folds looked sort of embarrassed while calling his band back onto the stage. He proceeded to launch into an improv jam around “sorry I forgot the words…” which featured five minutes of piano jam, five minutes of cranking on the toy looking synthesizer next to his piano that sounds a lot like “Sandstorm” on crack, and finally he took over the drum set for another jam pointing his stick at other members of the band to jam with. When they looked semi lost and confused, he goofed through a poor, yet charming, version of “Hiro’s Song” playing drums, singing and laughing. The band and the audience alike were in shock and awe.

It’s as if he said to paying guests of the Beacon “I messed up folks, here’s a gift that will never ever be created again.” Sitting behind Jason Sudekis, it’s impossible not to make the Dana Carvey “Choppin’ Broccoli” train of thought connection to the way Folds makes up songs. Although, I don’t think Carvey would dare attempt the outro to “You to Thank.” (Concert goers note: always see Ben Folds left center so you can watch his ridiculous piano playing)

Acknowledging the loosely unscripted madness Folds stated “…and now for some songs that were rehearsed”, before bringing the crowd to its feet with seven hits that found even elder white women of the Upper West Side “in a loving trance”, making it possible for all Beacon residents to dance.

And they did.

You can’t leave a Ben Folds show anything but giddy. He delivers a little bit of everything. The five piece version of his songs was as rockin’ as I’ve ever seen. The improv was as astoundingly witty. You get a taste of Ben Folds Live. This is as good of a show as you’ll ever see. What more could one want from an artist?

He can fight it all he wants, but he’s still got it.

Levi Johnston’s Blues
Doc Pomus
Sleazy (Ke$ha cover)
You to Thank
Saskia Hamilton
Free Bird (“I don’t know the words to this song improv”)
Rock This Bitch (Free Bird Version)
Still Fighting It
From Above


Picture Window
Practical Amanda
The Last Polka

(band returns)

Sorry I Forgot the Words to Last Polka Jam
Hiro’s Song (Ben on drums and vocals)

(hit parade)

Annie Waits
Zak and Sara
You Don’t Know Me
Rockin’ the Suburbs (You Better Look Out, Because I’m Going to Say Fuck Outro)

Not the Same

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Matisyahu Live at Brooklyn Bowl November 29th

There are a select few artists who fill a category for me. It’s a category that’s hard to characterize. But, if I had to put words to it, I would title it “Artists That Are Better Viewed Live And Only Really Worth Listening To If It’s The Live Album, Rather Than The Studio Albums (That Aren’t Bad), It’s Just Not The Same And Is Really Kind of a Buzzkill Otherwise.”

That’s just not punchy, but I think you know what I mean. All three of those aspects have to be conveyed.

  1. They are a good live band (most likely play their songs totally different live than on the album)
  2. Have a stand out live album
  3. You really can’t even listen to the other albums, because the live album is far superior and anything less seems like a waste of time in comparison

I’m thinking of a few specific examples. You may not agree with all of these, but I think you get the general idea. Nirvana Unplugged in New York, Barenaked Ladies Rock Spectacle, Mxpx Attheshow, and Five Iron Frenzy Proof That the Youth Are Revolting. Two other examples are close, but I’m such a big fan of the artists’ catalogues that they don’t fit all three categories, but are worth mentioning. Ben Folds Ben Folds Live and Neil Young’s Live Rust.

The crowning example (pun intended) of this genre of artist I’m talking about is Matisyahu’s (how the hell do you plural tense Matisyahu?) live album Live at Stubb’s. It’s the cat’s pajamas of live albums. In fact, it’s the only Matisyahu album I own. It’s the only thing he’s ever done that I would ever choose to listen to enough to carry with me (and I still keep Hootie and the Blowfish on file).

That all changed after this show.

First and foremost, I must mention how awesome Brooklyn Bowl is. Clutch sound. It’s very small, yet expansive in layout. The bowling alley is directly parallel and dynamically in view of the stage. There is a restaurant with fantastic food and a wonderful selection of Brooklyn Brewery and Six Point beers. What more could you ask for! I know I will hang out there any chance I get.

It’s not that Matisyahu put on a terrible show. The sound was good. He played a two hour and change set, which is something I enjoy. I love a long set, usually, although this time around I sadly found myself checking my watch. I don’t even own a watch.

It just had such high expectations from the previous shows I went to and the marinated versions of Live at Stubbs firmly graced my taste buds. I wanted to cured, smoked versions of his music and I was served cheese and crackers.

Don’t get me wrong. I love cheese and crackers. Just not when I’m expecting the multi-course meal Matis has always delivered. I can say the word always, because once a band has a SWEET live album, one just assumes they always KILL it live.

I hated to see this notion die.

What never dies is the joy I get from Matisyahu beat boxing. I know I could pay $2 bones and see someone who is an actual professional beat boxer do similar work (if not better), but there is just something about it being Matisyahu doing the beat boxing. And his new material really uses this skill well. Therefore, you get to see him work the mic in this fashion multiple times a set. That is the plus.

On the negative side, it didn’t really seem like he was passionate about his old material. I remember him dancing (in a perplexing, awkward circle formation) around the stage, talking to the audience with ridiculous stream of conscious banter and making cattywampus gestures throughout long jam sessions. His backing band seems to have lost some luster. Back in the day, it seemed like he had multiple percussionists and the music was so real and authentic. Pure. No electric drums or computerized sounds.

This time around, he had a three piece backing band called The Dub Trio that opened the concert with 40 minutes of bland noise. Just as I cleaned my palette with enough Brooklyn Lager to forget how boring they were, they marched back on stage with Matisyahu (as the backing band). Oh dear. I knew from there I was in trouble.

Then the 180 has happened folks. Because of the musicianship of this concert and all the dynamics that are in play including, but not limited to, my preparation for the show—I like a new Matisyahu album. Released in 2009, Light offers a brand of Matisyahu I cannot get from Live at Stubbs.

It’s better on album than live. WHOA!?

Light belts you in the face with an expansive sound. The songs come from a wide range of influence and the structures themselves are complex and ever-changing. Just how I like it. When he played these songs live, he was pumped—sort of. They came off well. It was just the “classics” that seemed like a drag. And that’s too bad. A concert legend was slayed today. But, I won’t let it take away from what I gained out of the experience.

It’s like the Sir Lancelot killing spree scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I feel like the father who watched the bride get murdered before his eyes, but at least he gained a son-in-law. And in this case, that’s not as bad as it sounds.