Live: Introducing New, Improved Ben Folds Five

Ben Folds and friends return with stage antics that are both funny and moving.

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- The back of Ben Folds Five's souvenir T-

shirts read "Farewell Tour 1981" in a font that would make even heavy-metallers

Iron Maiden blush.

While the Chapel Hill trio show no signs of breaking up, now or 16 years ago,

their familiar sound does send off the pop romps of yesteryear with a

contemporary smirk.

Still, almost forgotten, and more than likely lost on the younger fans in

attendance to see Ben Folds and his gang Nov. 26 at the Zephyr Club, are

Folds' influences -- '70s jazzy pop stars Steely Dan, new-wave pianoman Joe

Jackson and his radio-ready peer Billy Joel -- all who seem to smile from the

past at his live antics such as when Folds took his piano stool backstage for

repairs and led the group in a jazzy intermission.

Then there was the time he riffed on Snoop Doggy Dogg lyrics over a funky

strut: "Here's a jimmy joke about your mama that you might not like/ It's in the

key of A, bee-otch," Folds ranted. Or how about when he composed a brief

piano interlude entitled "Fuck That Pole" to console bassist Robert Sledge who

stood cornered on stage, cramped by the presence of a baby grand.

In the course of two well-received albums, this year's Whatever And

Ever Amen and their 1995 self-titled debut, Ben Folds Five have

approached their generation's "Battle Of Who Could Care Less" (the

opening number, by the way) by applying the more upbeat musical elements

of the '70s to modern topic matter. Their live show drove the point home

last week with Folds frequently flashing an impish grin to the audience while

pounding the ivories and the rhythm section of Sledge and drummer Darren

Jessee busting out crisp harmonies at will.

By the end of the show, Ben Folds Five and their opener Travis, a young four-

piece from Glasgow, Scotland, and recent recipients of bratty Brits Oasis' stamp

of approval, proved that they are two bands who can borrow from the past

without inducing nostalgia or sounding derivative; they’re bands that are

keeping rock alive by revitalizing the ailing art of live performance.

That said, Ben Folds Five got off to an atypically slow start that night. It could

have been the busted stool. Then again, it could have just been a case of the

blues setting in from another holiday spent away from home. The first half of the

set featured a sublime, supper club version of "Selfless, Cold and Composed"

but was marred by rushed renditions of "Philosophy" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Missing The War."

For the most part, the players seemed unaware of the rabid, capacity crowd until

Folds left his piano and took front-and-center. Folds gnawed at his finger,

looked up and broke the silence, "I'm breaking nails for you." And with this,

Folds began his attack.

Following the whimsical "Steven's Last Night In Town," the evening catapulted

to new heights of entertainment as Folds seemed to reach down from deep

within himself to reveal a newfound stage presence that saw the band not only

communicating with each other but with the crowd. The interaction took many

forms. "Kate," "Julianne"-- augmented by a calypso intro -- and "One Angry

Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces" were fueled by an excitement that circulated like

sound between the band and its audience.

Delicate numbers such as "Smoke" and "Fair" seemed even more frail and

emotional amid the band's newfound intimacy with its fans. You could almost

hear the emotions drifting around the room.

Then, offering a bit of comic relief between songs, Sledge reminisced about his

first encounter with Folds. "I kind of thought he was an asshole," he recalled.

And Folds mused about the appropriate context for the tune "Brick," which he

said was "written in summer, but made for winter."

It was all part of the new and improved Ben Folds Five stage show, which

included increased involvement from the once-silent Jessee and Sledge, who

at one point got so into his new role that he led a shout-out to "all the fine ladies

in the house" and sang a makeshift paean to "love and tenderness." "If you have

somebody to love," he directed in his best Baptist minister tone, "Hold them

tight."

The usually demure Jessee even pitched in a whole verse during the band's

encore performance of the Flaming Lips' "She Don't Use Jelly." And if Folds

was louder and more boisterous than ever on this night, then openers Travis

were more subdued, though no less passionate.

Unassuming in their thrift store shirts and sloppy haircuts, the lads of Travis won

over the at-first skeptical crowd with their affable demeanor, unbridled passion

for music and gift for hooks. Anthems such as "All I Want To Do Is Rock" and

"Tied To The '90s" boast huge radio potential, while the ragtime-inflected "Good

Feeling" and the Pink Floyd-ish ballad "I Love You Anyways" demonstrated

versatility without sparing content.

Singer Fran Healy made some really silly faces while hitting those raspy highs,

and guitarist Andrew Dunlop grinded on his axe with the best of stadium-

rockers. But there's nothing funny about how talented and just plain likable

Travis are on stage.

The bouncy chorus to "Happy," which closed out their set, echoed on the lips of

the smitten long after they had left the stage. "You've just heard our album

(Good Feeling)," Healy concluded in a thick Scottish accent, "Now

please go buy it."

Not a bad piece of advice for those who like their rock spirited, smart and catchy

as hell.

[Wed., Dec. 3, 1997, 9 a.m. PDT]