On June 8, 1996, Ben Folds Five was to play the New Daisy Theater in Memphis, TN. I was working in college radio at the time and our station had been given a supply of free tickets. Unfortunately, I had no car. Fortunately, I had several friends who did, so I proposed we all make a road trip to Memphis to go see the show.
My experience at WMSV (91.1 FM) out of Mississippi State University, from 1994-1997, was a formative one. Not only did it finally allow me the experience of being a DJ (which had been a longstanding dream of mine since being told by multiple people in 1989 that my voice would lend itself to a career in it), but it exposed me to a lot of music I would never have heard otherwise. It helped shape my musical taste to a large degree.
I was already a kid who was more at home with Paul Simon than Poison, but getting force fed a steady diet of Live, Dave Matthews Band (and a few years before the rest of the country had heard of them), Ani DiFranco, Barenaked Ladies, Moxy Fruvous, Sarah McLachlan, Phish, the Eels, Aimee Mann, Joan Osborne, Jason Falkner, Primus, Trout Fishing in America, the Subdudes, Taj Mahal, October Project, Ben Folds, and so many others, helped refine my musical taste and send me off in different directions. Most of these acts seem like no-brainers now, but at the time I’d never heard of most of them, nor, in many cases, had much of the rest of the country.
Now Ben Folds and his band the Ben Folds Five went on to have some top 40 hits in the later 90s, but in 1995, with their debut album, they were new to the national scene. I can even recall the first time I played a song by them, which I believe was their song “Philosophy.” It was a revelation to me because it sounded like the guy who used to do the old Kleenex Says, Bless You jingles from a decade earlier was now writing awesome rock music using primarily piano, bass, and drums. (For the record: not the same guy.) Also the fact that they were called Ben Folds Five and there were only three members in the band was something I found superbly charming. I played the ever-loving-snot out of that CD on the air. In fact, I played songs from it so much that Ben Folds Five began to encroach upon the play numbers of my standard regular overplayed airshift band, They Might Be Giants. “Philosophy” was my favorite song on the album, but “Underground” came a close second, and “Best Imitation of Myself” probably third. Folds and the band had a definite sound that I had heard nowhere else.
So when, in 1996, I heard they were going to be playing at the New Daisy, it seemed a done deal that I would be there to see the show. After all, we’d done a similar road trip with folks from the station–spearheaded by our fearless leader and general manager, Steve Ellis–back in December of `94, to see Milla Jovovich and Toad the Wet Sprocket. (Yes, THAT Milla Jovovich. Check out her album, The Divine Comedy. It’s good stuff.) The only difference was that this road trip wouldn’t be a university sanctioned event, and we’d have to carpool it rather than ride in an official MSU van. It would be awesome! And it was free!
I got no takers.
Nary a soul among my crew of nerd herd friends seemed at’tall interested in attending Ben Folds Five in concert.
So we stayed put in Starkpatch, ate pizza, and probably watched old episodes of Red Dwarf instead.
Now, I didn’t know this until this morning, but it turns out that our staying put was probably a good thing. Apparently the concert had to be cancelled. One site I found which reprinted old newsgroup posts noted that someone in the bad had gotten sick and they had to postpone the concert indefinitely. So this puts the resentment I’ve held toward my friends at this missed opportunity in a bit of a different light for me. It would have been awkward to have made that journey only to learn there was no concert at all. We would have been left with no recourse but to consume our weight in barbecue and craft beer. Yeah, that would have been a terrible time.
I kept up with Ben Folds Five after college, as I have many of the college radio bands I became a fan of back then. My favorite album of theirs is probably The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, which I hold is a masterpiece, though it was a critical and commercial failure at the time. The band broke up not long after its release and it took a few years before Ben began releasing his amazing solo work, with Rockin’ the Suburbs. I’ve picked up most everything since, though I’ve not yet delved into all of the side projects he’s done, such as The Bens, or quite all of his work with William Shatner.
After a semi-bitter 20 year wait, I finally got to see Ben Folds in concert last week when he played at the Clay Center in Charleston, sans the Five. In fact, the tour was called Ben Folds and a Piano.
I got to town a little early because I wanted to check out Lost Legion Games & Comics, the Rifleman, a comic store on the south west side of town. It’s the parent store to the one I used to go to in Princeton, but I’d never visited it. Turned out to be a great shop and very busy for a Thursday night. My plan was to next head back down town to Graziano’s Pizza. Unfortunately, there seemed to be some sort of parade or gathering of marching bands and ROTC kids going on near the comic shop and this had brought traffic to a halt. It didn’t look like anyone was going to clear out any time soon, so I decided to stay. The Happy Days Cafe was next door to Lost Legion and they had an open-faced meatloaf sandwich on special with mashed potatoes and gravy as a side. I asked if they would substitute french fries for the mashed potatoes, but keep the gravy–as gravy fries are one of my all time favs. They were spectacular.
Traffic jam having passed, I headed over to the Clay Center for Ben’s concert, which was also spectacular and nearly everything I could have asked for in a Ben Folds show.
After the first song, Ben talked to the crowd a bit, noting that half of his family comes from West Virginia. He wasn’t sure from where exactly and was awaiting a text reply from his father to find out. But he said that between his relatives from WV and NC his redneck street cred was pretty strong. It made such lyrics as “my redneck past keeps nipping at my heels” from “Army” ring even more true.
The concert was wonderful. Ben talked between most of the songs, telling stories–sometimes song origins and sometimes funny stories that resulted from songs–and being the personable dude I’ve heard in his appearances on podcasts like Nerdist and Adam Carolla. He even enlisted audience participation, such as having us do four part harmony in the bridge to “Bastard.” Then, after an audience member shouted out a request early on, Ben noted that we were welcome to shout out whatever we wanted to, but he was going to stick to the set list on his paper. However, we should stick around, cause at the middle of the show shit was going to get crazy. And he was not wrong.
Just before the last song of the first half of the concert, he explained that during intermission we were all welcome to go into the lobby where we would be given sheets of paper upon which we could write our song requests. We were then welcome to fold those pieces of paper into airplanes and, upon the resumption of the concert, we would be invited to launch them at the stage and Ben would play the rest of the concert based on those suggestions.
Unfortunately, I could not find paper in the lobby. Everyone was walking around with multiple pieces of it, but I couldn’t locate the central paper distribution point. I could have asked someone, sure, but that involves communicating with humans. I figured it would be fine even if I didn’t get paper, since there was no way the song I wanted to request, “The Luckiest,” wasn’t going to be requested by multiple other people. Chances were high it would be sung. Also, my seat was far enough back that there was no way I could engineer a paper airplane that would make the journey to the stage without some added ballast to carry it. (My seat mates caught a glimpse of the mailing tube my recently purchased Ben Folds tour poster came in and thought for sure I had a brought some kind of paper airplane bazooka. In retrospect, I could have used the poster to make the biggest paper airplane in the room, which would have certainly drawn the attention of Mr. Folds. It would also have cost me $30 to do it, but how awesome would that have been?)
Ben came back from intermission and gave us the countdown for the launching of the planes. Maybe ten percent actually made it to the stage. Many immediately nose-dived back into the crowd. There followed much relaunching and re-relaunching until more had made it. True to his word, Ben played the rest of the show from the request planes, including a few songs that weren’t even his to begin with. He did a great version of “Tiny Dancer,” a song he had learned for some concerts he’d done with Elton John in Australia. Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” he claimed to know not even a little of, then played a respectable version that he just made up lyrics to as he went. Then Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” was requested, which one of Ben’s crew said he’d played once before. He didn’t know the lyrics, though, so he just sang phonetic gibberish for the whole thing and it sounded perfect. And, of course, someone had to request Ben’s beautifully arranged cover version of Dr. Dre’s rap song “Bitches Ain’t Shit” from his Magnum Opus album The Chronic. With a title like that you can probably guess the Joseph Campbell Heroes Journey it’s going to take you on. If anyone there was shocked at the first verse, they were probably even moreso by the second, which around another third of the audience sang in unison without Ben’s vocal assistance. (He explained that he doesn’t like to sing that verse, probably due to all the racial slurs, so he was going to let us do that. I was not among the “us,” though, because I don’t have it memorized and am pretty sure that’s a good thing.) I imagine there were those present who were shocked by the content of the song, regardless of the beauty of the melody. Some might have even wondered why Ben would have covered it in the first place. I think the Village Voice sums it up nicely: “The greatest way to show up musical misogyny for the absurd bullshit that it is, is to break it down into a ballad and have it gently sung by a charming nerd. Here Ben Folds takes a super-sexist, curse-laden track, flips it on its head and makes Dr. Dre look like an idiotic buffoon. What’s more, taking gangsta speak and enunciating it like a middle-class white guy is always going to be comedy gold…” And comedy gold it was, even if not everyone in the audience was in on the joke.
At one point during the second half, I thought my unlaunched request for “The Luckiest,” was going to be played when Ben picked an airplane featuring a short letter from a girl in the audience. She wrote, and I’m paraphrasing, that she didn’t want to be the typical white girl who requests “the Luckiest” but she was attending the show with her man who wanted her to feel like the luckiest woman there. So Ben used the content of that letter as lyrics for a song he improvised on the spot. I figured that he’d just blend that beautiful and funny tune right into “The Luckiest” afterward. Nope. He’d honored the letter of the request and moved on–probably confident that it would turn up in a future airplane. Sadly, it did not.
It was a great show. And when Ben returned to the stage for the encore, he announced that he’d received a reply from his father and that his family was from Webster county, which is about as hinterlands as hinterlands go in this state. His final song was the aptly chosen “Army.” Once again, his redneck past keeps nipping at his heels.