Wednesday, 12 December 2012

5th December 2012: Ben Folds Five / Bitter Ruin / Alicia Witt - Brixton Academy

1999, what a cracking year. I was living in Paris for 6 months of it, during which time I broke up with a spectacularly psychotic girlfriend (hiding in the bottom of a wardrobe after a fight, anyone?), gained a 14-year old stalker, developed an unhealthy crush on my German flatmate, and made it impossible for myself to return to the 20th arrondissement by getting drunk on my last night and throwing unwanted frying pans and other household items out of the window into the street at passing cats.

Oh, and there was some kind of business with numbers around the end of December that left us with The O2. But I'm a bit sketchy on that.

December 1999 was also the last time that Ben Folds Five came to London Town, making it a full 13 years, as Ben reminds us tonight. Which is a bit rude, especially since, as he tells us near the start of tonight's set, London has always been good to the band and they love playing here. (No, of course he doesn't say that every night, why would you even ask that?)

They were riding high on the back of their career-defining statement and best-album-you've-probably-never-heard "The Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner", a concept album of sorts and one which didn't quite set the charts alight despite the Gigging Forever seal of approval. In fact I distinctly remember the bloke in Richard's Records in Canterbury telling me that my copy was the first one he'd sold. Mind you, Richard's Records in Canterbury is now an Italian sandwich shop, so who's sniggering now, record shop bloke?

Even the cover just oozes "underrated classic". 
Go on, have a listen.

I'm a little bit hazy about what happened to the band after 1999 but the next thing I knew, Ben Folds was touring solo with Neil Hannon (of the Divine Comedy - what I wouldn't give to have seen that show), then there were solo albums and collaborations with Nick Hornby, and solo shows which I didn't make it to, for reasons I know not.

But now they're back, and ready to prove they're still relevant in 2012. Will it be a nostalgia trip or do they still have something important to say?


My companion for this evening is my good friend Rob, who's known me since we were both 11 years old (but somehow hasn't escaped.) I would tell you more about him, but I'd have to kill you. In fact I'm not even allowed to know anything about him that's newer than 1996. I assume it's still his Saturday job at Hollywood Bowl Margate which is keeping him so busy, so I try not to ask.

Anyway, Rob manages to make some good friends in the queue outside whilst waiting for me, as the BFF massive prove to be quite a friendly lot. I exit Brixton tube to several texts of increasing urgency...

- Are you there yet?
- Err, there's two queues...
- Are you there yet?
- Are you there yet

The tone of the last one suggests that someone's life is in danger, so I chivalrously decide to assume that's it's his, and do break into a moderate trot in the direction of the venue, not easy to do when you're wearing a giant overcoat and scarf to protect yourself against the close-to-zero December night. When I finally do come around the corner, I'm greeted with a hero's welcome: apparently Rob's new friends have been following the saga of "does this guy really have a mate who's bringing his tickets or is he in fact some kind of mentalist?" with some interest.

The running turns out to be a good call as I arrive at what is almost the front of the queue with only a few minutes to go before doors open, and pretty soon we are stationed right down at the front staring directly at Ben's piano. Sterling work from East Kent's foremost shoe-sprayer.

We don't have long to wait before a rather striking redhead comes out and sits at the aforementioned instrument, launching completely unexpectedly into something rather Rachmaninov sounding, with note-perfect precision. It's extremely impressive and Rob and I turn to stare at each other, eyebrows raised in pleasant confusion. The concert pianist turns out to be...

Alicia Witt

... although it takes a few songs before we find this out. You've probably seen Alicia before, even if you don't know it - she was a child actor in 'Dune' and 'Mr Holland's Opus' amongst others, as well as having been in various episodes of 'Law & Order : Criminal Intent', 'The Mentalist', 'Friday Night Lights', and much more. Apparently she's also a shit hot stand-up comedian, or so Ben tells us later.

I'm sorry but my phone failed to take any usable photos tonight
so you're stuck with other people's. 
Which is a real shame in this case, obviously.

Oh yeah, and she can tickle the ivories a bit. And it soon becomes apparent that she's a rather fine singer, too, as she casually brings her piano piece to an end and says 'Okay, here's a song'. The CD I buy after the gig and various Youtube videos I check out later reveal a slightly country-pop-ish tint to her material but when it's just her and Ben's piano, getting intimate up on stage, it's classic singer-songwriter stuff. I'm almost ashamed to say that Rob and I both agree after that it reminds us of some of Billy Joel's really early material - I'm not sure this is something anyone necessarily aspires to, but given that the two of us originally bonded over songs like 'Piano Man' and 'Falling of the Rain', I can assure you it's intended as the highest of compliments. There's just something about her furious playing style on a couple of the songs which puts me in mind of 'Summer Highland Falls'. Plus, when you're sitting at a piano and singing songs, it's a bit hard not to be reminiscent of someone else who famously sits at a piano and sings songs.

Just when we start to think there's no end to Alicia's talents, she reveals a hitherto unknown weakness in the wrist department by completely failing to open a bottle of water, and having to call for a roadie to come and help her. But no roadie help is forthcoming, instead Rick Moranis appears from stage right and comes to her aid... or perhaps it's Ben Folds, I'm not quite sure.

I ain't afraid of no Highland Spring...

Alicia seems genuinely surprised to see Ben coming to her rescue, although I'm slightly suspicious that he's just coming to check on his piano after the pounding she's been giving it. I needn't worry, given the treatment I see him doling out to it over the next couple of hours.

Sadly there's only time for a few of Alicia's excellent (and in some cases deceptively angry) songs before she has to vacate the piano stool, but Rob and I are both extremely impressed and pick up her live CD on the way out, in lieu of being able to make it to tomorrow night's solo gig at the tiny 12-Bar Club in Denmark Street, tempting though this is. 

No sooner has Alicia left the stage than some figures emerge from the shadows and start setting up for...

Bitter Ruin

... tonight's second support act and definitely the most wonderfully intriguing thing I've seen in a long while. Things start well when I notice that a cello is being tuned, which is always a plus point in my book - never enough cellos at rock gigs (and the more tuned, the better). Aside from the guest cellist, Bitter Ruin is a duo comprised of guitarist Ben Richards and vocalist Georgia Train (middle name presumably 'Midnight') - so far, so student union open mic night.

Photo: Bitter Ruin Facebook page / 
Jenny May Finn Film & Photography

Opening song 'Gentle Man' starts nicely, with some minor strummed arpeggios bringing to mind a slow tango, and Georgia's breathy, controlled vocals begging us to stop chatting and listen up. And then, from out of nowhere comes what can only be described as a primal scream from the very depths of her soul - only it's an actual pitch-perfect note. And another. And then another. This girl has the lung capacity of a deep sea diver and the raw power of a market stall trader, only rolled into something way more melodic than it has any right to be. I look around to see that I'm not alone in being completely stunned - I'm not sure I can tell who's loving it and who's hating it, but one thing's certain, she can't be ignored.

All the words I want to use to describe Georgia's vocals would normally conjure up horrible mental images when applied to singing: screeching, wailing, yelling, bleating, even yodelling now and again - and yet somehow she manages to reclaim them as something not only listenable but downright mesmerising. She brings to mind at various points Regina Spektor, Anja Garbarek and Kate Bush in equal measures, but without ever sounding anything other than utterly original. I'm always loath to join the X-Factor bashing-bandwagon (way too easy), but I'm sorry Louis Walsh, THIS is what being 'born to sing' sounds like.

Photo: Bitter Ruin Facebook page / 
Jenny May Finn Film & Photography

And just when you think Ben is simply Georgia's back-up guitarist, we come to the second song, 'Trust' -  (a link to the video is right there for you but it's also available as a free download from their website, and I urge you to go and have a listen for yourself.) Starting with flamenco-ish style guitar (something of a feature of their sound and even their image to an extent), it's not long before Georgia's dramatic, piercing vocals are loosening the audience's earwax. But what's this? The chorus knocks things up several gears, with frantic guitar thrashing accompanying call and response vocals between the pair - and then Ben takes the second verse and reveals himself to be every bit as accomplished a vocalist as his partner, in a more earthy, bluesy way but just as powerful.

Photo: Bitter Ruin Facebook page / 
Jenny May Finn Film & Photography

Frankly I could sit here raving all night about Bitter Ruin, but I expect you clicked on this expecting to read something about Ben Folds Five, so I'll have to leave it there. Suffice it to say, however, that over the course of the 6-song set, I'm turned into something of a convert, especially by closing number 'Child in a Seacave' which is apparently the song which got them the gig with Ben, and is the closing track on their new EP.

The 4-track EP, by the way, entitled "The Rocket Sessions", is highly recommended, containing as it does 4 amazing songs showcasing both the soulful and crazy side of the two vocalists, and some fine guitar playing (and cello too, for those who enjoy such things as much as I do.) It also reveals some of the bizarre subject matter and sweariness which turns out to be a huge characteristic of their output once you get it home for a little cosy one-on-one action. But do you know what the best thing is? We actually get to hear both Georgia and Ben's voices unencumbered by the studio trickery which is usually applied to excellent live vocalists to make them sound bland and generic on record. (Or, if it's there, it's at least not audible, which I suppose is okay.) Yes, I know, I'm a grumpy old man, but seriously, I'm fed up with enjoying people live, then buying their CDs and finding their unique and powerful voices have been fed through the 'constipated robot' tool.

The last words have to go to Stephen Fry - not someone I often disagree with in any case but this time he's got it nailed.

"Initially rather disturbing, but ultimately brilliant!"

Photo: Bitter Ruin Facebook page / 
Jenny May Finn Film & Photography

Bitter Ruin Setlist:

- Gentle Man
- Trust
- The Vice
- Tom Thumb
- A Brand New Me
- Child in a Seacave

Two excellent acts already down and we've almost had enough value for our money, but there's only one name on the tickets, and it's...

Ben Folds Five

... who manage to provoke levels of adulation I'd thought impossible outside of a One Direction concert, simply by appearing on the stage and grinning at us - but to be fair, we've waited a long time for this. We nerds need our role models, too, you know.

I found loads of awesome photos of the gig by Rachel Lipsitz at this site -
  but no contact details to ask if it was ok to borrow them.
Loyal readers, I am taking the risk of legal action to bring you the best review possible
, I hope you appreciate that and go check out the site for more snaps. Rachel - loving your work.

The set starts in rather subdued fashion, with 'Missing The War', a majestic and haunting quiet piano-based number, and it's a nice chance for both band and audience to warm up their vocal chords, ahead of what might be considered the first song proper - 'Michael Praytor, 10 Years Later', from this year's comeback album 'The Sound of the Life of the Mind'.

Right back at the start of this blog (you remember that, right, it was when you still had hair and everything was made of wood?), I wondered whether we were in for a night of pure nostalgia or if BFF could be considered a rejuvenated and current band again. Well, if the crowd reaction to the drum intro to this album track is anything to go by, I'd say they're still relevant to their fans at least. In fact, far from being a travelling oldies jukebox merely paying lip service to the new album, they play the vast majority of it tonight, and every song is greeted by the faithful like a long lost classic. 

From the aforementioned celebration of friends lost and regained (during which said friend Michael Praytor actually emerges from behind the mixing desk and comes onstage to wave at us), to angry break-up song par excellence 'Erase Me' ("Do me like a pro and taze me..."), which has a rocking extended outtro during which Ben thrashes the crap out of his piano- so exciting I have to take my scarf off.

And then there's the bouncy but bitter 'Do It Anyway', with a rollicking drum beat from the rocksteady Darren Jesse, and the beautiful 'Sky High', which sees bassist Robert Sledge pick up his upright double bass for the first time tonight (yes, it's like a cello only EVEN MORE AWESOME.)

Yeah, that's Robert but that's not a Double Bass.
Rachel didn't manage to get a picture of the Double Bass. I dunno, Rachel...

Ahhh yes, the other members of the band. It's tempting to wonder, when Ben Folds has been playing live all through this band hiatus, playing BFF songs, why it's such a big deal to have the band back. Isn't Ben Folds pretty much interchangeable with Ben Folds Five?

Well, this is answered pretty swiftly with tonight's first "hit", 'Jackson Cannery', which reminds us what a rock solid rhythm section the "other two" really are, and how much of the band's style they're responsible for. Power trios are trios for a reason, and that reason is... well, there are three of them, yeah... no, that reason is that they make an enormous sound without needing anyone else. I've seen many good drummers but I've yet to hear one with such a big sound from such a small kit as Darren Jesse - firmly rooted in the rock style with big old fills but with proper swing.

And Robert is the foundation of this sound, tight as anything down at the low end (ooer), with some amazing bass runs and a lovely crunchy tone which rattles the fixtures and fittings of this lovely old venue. And as well as the sublime bowed double bass on 'Brick' (another "stone" cold classic, eh? eh? Ok, never mind...), he also gets to have a go on a keyboard next to him every so often, adding some wonderfully analogue squelchy synth sounds to some of the songs.

Then there are the vocal harmonies. Almost as much of a part of the sound as the rollicking piano of Ben Folds himself, the Beach-Boys esque close vocal work is back in spades and demonstrates why this is a band and not just a piano man and his backing artists. If there's a more impressive vocal opening to a song than the wonderful doo-doo- harmonies that open 'Battle of Who Could Care Less', I've not heard it. Feel free to send it over.

Having said that, it's hard not to spend much of the gig just watching Ben. No, I mean it's literally hard, he's right in front of us and I don't really enjoy getting neckache. It's just as well, then, that he's an incredibly engaging performer, somehow managing to exude charisma despite his almost-deliberately unassuming appearance and deadpan vocal delivery. It certainly helps that he thumps, humps and jumps on his piano from all kinds of angles, alternating between intricate little syncopated melodies and flat out keyboard abuse. In fact he freaks out with his fists so violently at the end of 'Philosophy' that Rob is concerned he's actually broken one of his keys. It's not so unlikely after all, given Ben's story tonight about how they appeared on "Later with Jools Holland" back in the 90's, playing this song, after which Jools apparently had cause to complain that "that geezer fucked me piano"...

If there's anything that's surprising about tonight, it's just how RAWWWWK you can be using only a piano, bass and drums - the sound is loud and distorted (in a good way) when it's supposed to be, and somehow there's more raw power here without a single guitar than at Muse a few weeks ago.

What's not even remotely surprising, though, is how good the songs are. Slotting the new numbers in amongst the classics from the 90's albums and even one solo track ('Landed') is a masterstroke, and adds up to an extremely cohesive body of work. There's a bit of everything throughout the set, including lesser known album tracks like 'Selfless, Cold and Composed', but it naturally works up towards a big finish with genuine chart smashes like 'Underground' and 'Army', the latter including a duet between opposing factions of the crowd who want to sing different parts of the brass arrangements (yeah, there are some things a power trio can't recreate live...) And then there's the joy of standing in a room with several thousand people all shouting 'Give me my money back, give me my money back you bitch' over and over again during 'Song for the Dumped'. Unbeatable.

My personal highlight, though, is the opening track from that album I started talking about several thousand words ago. 'Narcolepsy' is probably my favourite BFF song, and the closest thing they have to a 'prog' song, perhaps- either that or one of those Billy Joel epics like 'Angry Young Man' which kick off with a piano prelude before heading off into something different. We're lucky to get this tonight (it wasn't played last night), and we're even luckier that Ben manages to get through it, given that he's distracted by a disembodied hand coming out from under the curtain behind him, attempting to fix a stuck spotlight. Eventually the light gets fixed and the hand disappears, but not before Ben tries to detatch it from its owner with a carefully thrown bottle of water. All whilst playing piano and singing.

The night ends with a crowd pleasing final encore of 'One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces', and it's all over, leaving us to head back to Waterloo to negotiate the carnage still ensuing on the rails from the 17 flakes of snow which fell in Surrey last night. 

Hopefully this won't be the only chance we get to see the band, because on tonight's showing, and listening to the new album yet again on the way home, they still have plenty to say.

Ben Folds Five Setlist:

Missing the War 
Michael Praytor, Five Years Later 
Jackson Cannery 
Hold That Thought 
Selfless, Cold and Composed 
Erase Me 
Sky High 
Best Imitation of Myself 
Battle of Who Could Care Less 
Draw a Crowd 
Thank You for Breaking My Heart 
Do It Anyway 
Song for the Dumped 


One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces

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