Ben Folds Five is one of the least likely "legacy" acts to emerge in the new crop of alt-lifers. As a piano-led three-piece from North Carolina, the band created albums that sounded like Billy Joel gone Grunge, pure power pop executed with a plaid-shirted smirk. At its peak, the band was most powerful when dropping the pretense of irony, as it did in the single "Brick," which in many ways felt like a response to the full-time slacker lifestyle reflected in much of BFF's music. It's still the band's most notable hit and perhaps its finest song, and the one that got the biggest rise out of the crowd Friday night at Central Park's Rumsey Playfield SummerStage.
After a period of dormancy punctuated by a one-off reunion show in their hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Ben Folds Five is back with a new self-released album, The Sound of the Life of the Mind, due out Tuesday. It marks a stylistic shift for the band members — they're older now, a bit more earnest, a bit more mature. Folds has taken on something of a "cool uncle" role musically, with solo work much more in the tradition of the soft rock his band once seemed to mock wholeheartedly. Still, the record isn't schlock for schlock's sake—it's earnest, but not disconcertingly so. The band seems torn between the juvenilia of its earlier work and adult responsibility. The chorus of "Draw A Crowd," for example, uses lewd graffiti as a metaphor for acting out, while the album's title track (written by Nick Hornby, of all people) is a character study of a woman young enough to be Folds' daughter.
Performing to a sold-out crowd on the Upper East Side where tickets were nearly fifty dollars isn't the most punk rock thing to do, but it's a sound financial decision for Ben Folds Five, whose audience these days spans generations, some of whom are financially sound enough to find themselves in the UES without feeling silly (sadly, your reviewer is not one of these people). They began their set by focusing on material from The Sound of the Life of the Mind, before dipping into the classics, culminating in a rapturous take of "Army," a highlight from The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. Its miasma from joke to genuine regret proved that the guys in Ben Folds Five might be older these days, but there's youth in their bones yet.