Ben Folds did a drop for me. I know that totally sounds like a drug reference, but in reality it's radio lingo. Back in the mid-90's, when Folds' band, Ben Folds Five, was at it's creative zenith (it's first one, at least; more on that later), the band played Wavefest. You remember Wavefest, right? If you're under 30 you might not, but for the rest of us aging hipsters desperately clinging to our musical youth (Grizzly Bear? Fun? Screw that, I saw the Butthole Surfers live, ya whippersnapper. Now get off my lawn!"), the years that Wavefest rocked Brittlebank Park and later the Romney Street landfill were some of the best live music events that took place in Charleston in the 90's. Radio station 96 Wave, which I was lucky enough to start interning for just as grunge broke in the early 90's, threw the annual free all-day concerts each October. I'll have to write a separate blog entry about the Wavefest years at some point, but for the 1997 edition of the show the bands included headliner David Byrne, as well as Wilco, Son Volt, Cracker, The Jayhawks, Seven Mary Three, Blue Mountain, Junior Brown, Jump Little Children, and Ben Folds Five.
I know, right? Show me a better lineup in the 90's. This was back before multi-day festivals began to breed like fungus throughout the country. By then I was actually working for 96 Wave as a weekend DJ, and being that I was low man on the totem pole, I drew the short straw and had to stay back at the station to run the soundboard and capture the live cut-ins by the full-time DJs. Fortunately, I only had to stay until noon, and then I was off to Wavefest... to work my ass off onsite for the rest of the day. As a result of my morning gig at the station, I managed to miss Ben Folds Five when they performed. I had seen them a year or so before at the Music Farm, and knew they kicked ass live, so I was a bit bummed to miss them on the huge Wavefest stage.
As I was going about my duties at Wavefest, which mostly consisted of delivering bottled water and soft drinks to the refreshment stands around the site, I spied Ben Folds himself strolling around backstage. He seemed approachable, and since I carried a mini tape recorder and microphone with me at all times (I was really into radio back then), I decided to see if he'd do a drop for me. Drops are the recorded station IDs that run between songs. The best ones were when you could get a recording artist to say both your name and the station's name. Fortunately, Folds was game, and for the rest of my time at 96 Wave, whenever I played a Ben Folds Five song on my shift it was preceded by Folds himself saying "Hi, this is Ben Folds from Ben Folds Five, and you're listening to Devin Grant on 96 Wave." Folds was actually really nice, and really cool about doing it, and to his credit he nailed it on the first take.
Ben Folds Five broke up in 2000 after releasing three studio albums and a collection of live tracks and rarities. By all accounts it was an amicable split. Pianist Ben Folds, bassist Robert Sledge, and drummer Darren Jessee all went on to their own individual projects and BFF fans were left to listen to their CDs. Folds released some well-received solo albums and scored a few films, but when the trio reconvened last year to record some new music for the BFF box set The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective. Apparently things went well, because before they knew it, BFF was back in the studio recording a proper album and planning a reunion tour. That tour made a stop here in the Lowcountry Wednesday night, the day after The Sound of The Life of The Mind—the first new studio by BFF in 13 years—was released.
Taking my seat at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night, I was a bit dismayed at the fact that the venue was only half full. Any apprehension of a downer show disappeared though when opening act Kate Miller-Heidke opened her mouth. Performing with a guy on acoustic guitar who I later learned was her husband Kier, Miller-Heidke sang her original songs in a voice that was even more original. You could tell she was classically trained by the way she injected opera into her music, and by the end of her set she had received a standing ovation. The Australian-born singer seemed delighted by the long line of folks that lined up in the lobby afterward, clutching her CD and waiting for autographs. She definitely deserved the attention.
When Ben Folds walked out on the PAC's stage with Jessee and Sledge, he approached his grand piano like a kid digging into a giant hot fudge sundae. The band launched into "Michael Praytor, Five Years Later," a track from the new album. The crowd was definitely into it from the beginning, but when BFF played the opening bars of "Jackson Cannery," a popular tune from it's debut album, the audience went bananas. The night was a mix of new songs ("Erase Me," "Sky High," "Do It Anyway") and old classics ("Uncle Walter," "Brick," "Battle of Who Could Care Less," "Kate").
There were also the inevitable antics before, after, and during songs that really made the evening. Just before digging into "Uncle Walter" a female member of the audience yelled "I love you, Ben," and Folds, who was literally counting down into the song turned and blew the fan a kiss without missing a beat. He also talked about visiting friends in Charleston over the years, walking up and down King Street and eating in restaurants, but then the singer caught himself rambling and got things back on track, saying "Here's another song. We came to play songs. Songs we made up." Prior to playing "Sky High," Folds had to adjust some strings in his piano. He started to explain what he was doing, but then again got that mischievous look and deadpanned, "I know you didn't pay the high ticket price to watch me stuff bullshit in my piano."
Later, after starting an impromptu jam session with Jessee and Sledge that incorporated the soft rock instrumental "Popcorn," Folds wandered offstage, only to return minutes later sporting a blue plastic cup. He stood behind Sledge horsing around for a bit, then took his place back at the piano, advising the crowd, "That was a combination 'Popcorn' slash take a piss and pour another gin and tonic number." For "Draw a Crowd," another song from the new album, Folds advised the crowd, "We'll f**k this song up, but you'll be the first ones ever to hear it live." That got a huge reaction from the audience, and the band actually got through the tune relatively unscathed. That song, by the way, features what are probably my favorite lyrics on the new album. "I only wanted to be Stevie Wonder," sang Folds, adding, "I have to settle for this Vanilla Thunder."
The new song "Do It Anyway" has a music video that features the band frolicking with the puppets from the 80's kid show "Fraggle Rock." Folds revealed a few tongue in cheek "facts" about the Fraggles, while Sledge mused about a zombie Jim Henson, much to the horror of his bandmates and much of the crowd ("No, he was cool," pleaded Sledge. "He had one eye..."). At one point as fans were yelling out song requests, Folds zeroed in on a particularly loud voice in the audience. "Man, are you a voice major?," Folds asked the unseen owner of the voice. "No, a singer in a failed rock band," answered the voice. "Man, your band must have sucked," marveled Folds, meaning any band with a voice like that should be destined to succeed. Before anyone knew it, Folds had invited the voice and its owner up on stage to sing "Philosophy." The voice turned out to be one Lewis Dodson from the Drop In Bar and Deli on Folly Beach. Dodson gave it his best, executing David Lee Roth high kicks while singing about half of the lyrics to the song. Folds was impressed enough to invite Dodson backstage after the show, assumedly for a gin and tonic. Stellar versions of "Kate," "Army," and "Song for the Dumped" rounded out the main set, which ended with Folds chucking his piano stool at his keyboard for the songs final note. After a short break, the band returned to perform one of my favorite BFF songs, "Underground." It was a truly epic show. Thirteen years after that breakup, BFF is back and as strong as ever.
Oh, and by the way, Ben Folds is still a nice guy, as evidenced by his actions after Wednesday night's show. Afterward there were about twenty-five fans hanging out at the entrance to the loading dock behind the venue. I tagged along with a friend who wanted to get an autograph. Hanging out after the show waiting for an artist to possibly show up is a total crap shoot (Hmmm, I'll have to write a blog about that too, because I've had some interesting experiences doing that...). On Wednesday night, though, the stars aligned, and all three members of the band strolled out to hang with their fans for a bit. Folds was as nice as ever. He and his compadres signed autographs, posed for photos, and were generally very cool until a handler materialized after about 20 minutes and said they had to go. It's nice to know some things don't change with time.