Plenty of bands can wrap dark lyrical content in a Splenda-sweet, pop-rock package, but Ben Folds Five is among the best at this musical feat. Although some of the band’s hits have shown a proclivity toward the somber, many of Ben Folds Five’s most popular songs set lyrics seething with angst against bubbly instrumentation and fun, retro sounds. And Wednesday night, facing a devoted legion of fans for the first time in 12 years at the Ogden Theatre, this charming skill shone through the darkest narratives Ben Folds Five could muster.
At the first gig of the band’s first tour since breaking up, Ben Folds Five showed none of the rustiness or tension that can mar a reunion show. The group’s new songs felt stylistically familiar, yet laden with the emotional weight acquired in the band’s 12-year hiatus. “Erase me” a paean to post-breakup fury, and “Do It Anyway,” which speaks to the ambivalence that comes with maturity and heartbreak, both shone among the band’s older material like “Brick” and “Kate.”
Denver’s Ben Folds Five fans are excitable and dedicated, and the band rewarded their loyalty by dropping references to the Mercury Café and pot legalization into well-loved songs like “Rock This Bitch.” Front-row devotees offered up suggestions, including a poster labeled “Choose Another Request,” from which Folds plucked the suggestion of “Free Bird.” Obligingly, the band improvised a minor-key version of the Skynyrd song. Interestingly, Folds smiled and laughed off any and all shouted requests for work from his solo career, preferring instead to stick to songs from the trio’s heyday and new album.
Rejected requests aside, the crowd last night was receptive and passionate. The sing-along during “Army” elicited a broad, pleased-choir-teacher smile from Folds as he stood up from the piano bench to face the crowd. Moments like this showcased the group’s disarming affability, their unique ability to deliver messages about suburban conformity, disastrous love and the music industry’s many indignities with a softening charm. This didn’t feel like a band’s tired retread of old songs to pay new debts. This felt like the best kind of reunion: a checking-in to see how we’ve all grown.
Cassandra Schoon is a Denver freelance writer and regular Reverb contributor.
Seth A. McConnell is a staff photographer for the YourHub section of the Denver Post and is a regular contributor to Reverb.