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Ben Folds Five Doesn't Keep Crowd Waiting

Weekend Reviews | Pop Music Review

May 11, 1998|NATALIE NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Returning to Southern California five months after captivating a South Bay club audience, the members of Ben Folds Five brought their cacophonous piano pop act to the Hollywood Palladium on Saturday, where the audience was more diverse and every bit as excited to see them.

Rather than building gradually to a riveting frenzy like during its December show, this time the Chapel Hill, N.C., trio simply came out swinging, firing up a mixed crowd of mainstream fans, hipsters and pre-adolescents with the executive's payback song "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces."

Singer-pianist Ben Folds, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee stayed in a high-energy groove for much of the 90-minute performance, and their choice to mostly rock out was both professional and undeniably crowd-pleasing.

It also made for a smoother ride than the previous show at Club Caprice in Redondo Beach, in which the emotional highs and lows made it difficult to get a handle on any one song's mood.

At the Palladium, the trio offered a range of biting relationship tunes and character sketches drawn mostly from its current album, "Whatever and Ever Amen," as well as older works. But the emotional changes were effected more subtly, allowing the impact of some songs to resound a little more deeply.

With bassist Sledge bowing a cello, the trio extracted palpable conflict from one of its most affecting numbers, a spare and riveting rendition of "Brick," about a couple drifting apart in the aftermath of an abortion.

The sound in the hall was a little too muddy to really understand the lyrics, which are essential to appreciating this act, but Folds still came off like the dynamic piano men of pop eras past. He burned all night, jamming on the keyboard and belting out the lyrics, sometimes tossing precision to the wind in favor of power and passionate playing.

The raucous, droll and rude "Song for the Dumped" recalled Elton John's earlier, nastier days, while the gorgeous tones and bitter words of "Selfless, Cold and Composed" brought to mind early-'70s Todd Rundgren.

Folds even playfully tossed off quick riffs on Beethoven and Gershwin at points, but the group's nod to idol Burt Bacharach, "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," came off as disappointingly pedestrian.

In spite of Folds' various musical in-jokes and the offbeat song titles that make the band seem artier than it is, this concert revealed a pop act that is learning to make the most of its wide-ranging fan base. The songs appeal to listeners on a variety of levels, exploring the frustrations and travails of ordinary life with explosive fury and tongue-in-cheek vitriol.

But they also carry an undercurrent of empathy, which may prove to be a valuable asset if Ben Folds Five's popularity continues to rise.

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