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Ben Folds Five a manic blast from the past

It seems fitting that pop's coolest nerd would perform on the hottest day of the year. While it cooled down decently for Ben Folds Five's 90-minute set at the BMO Harris Pavilion, that didn't stop Folds' legendarily blazing piano skills from searing themselves into the crowd's ears.

Ben Folds Five became a pop sensation in the late '90s thanks to their melancholy 1997 hit song, "Brick." Since then, the band has been out of commission. A year after its 1999 album, "The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner," the group broke up.

While the members went their separate ways, Folds grew in popularity, starting a solo career that led to a high-profile judging position on NBC's hit a cappella TV show "The Sing Off."

Over a decade later, however, the band has come back together not only for this summer tour, but also a new album scheduled for release in September (Folds told the audience during the concert that they had just finished tracking).

The time apart for Ben Folds Five hasn't tarnished their fun on-stage interactions with each other and the crowd. Folds and bassist Robert Sledge made goofy banter between numbers, settling a nerdy music debate about F sharps and G flats with an audience poll and dryly poking fun at the numerous signs for BMO Harris Bank and Miller Lite scattered around the brand new stage. Folds also got the best line of the night, describing the crowd reaction to Sledge's enthusiasm between songs as "furiously tepid."

Most importantly, though, Ben Folds Five's music hasn't suffered over the years. Starting almost immediately with their first song, "Jackson Cannery," the receptive audience, which filled about three-fourths of the blue seats and almost the entire regular seating area, was treated to Folds' famously frantic piano playing. His hands pounded on the keys with a beautifully controlled chaos and then bounced off as if they were made of small trampolines.

Audiences expecting Folds to deliver a visually inventive show, such as his famous use of Chatroulette during a concert, may have left a bit disappointed. Instead, the band saved much of the creativity for the music itself. The highlight of their mad musical genius came during "Song for the Dumped," as Sledge unplugged his guitar and used the end of the cord to create a beat. Folds then began to duel him by scratching his microphone against the inside of the piano. It was a wildly unique and brilliant addition to the song.

Not all of the group's musical successes Thursday night, however, were so theatrical. In fact, most of their success came from their dynamic set list and the small tweaks they applied to the numbers. For instance, their rendition of "Fair" was packed with tiny, satisfying riffs for both Folds and Sledge to show off their piano, singing and bass talents. The band could sound luxuriously jazzy on one song, such as "Selfless, Cold and Composed," and then transform into a garage band for the raw bass solo in the beginning of "Song for the Dumped."

Their haunting rendition of "Brick," with its melancholy piano and tragic lyrics, was good enough to send chills up fans' spines, an impressive feat considering the balmy temperature.

Robert Francis, an L.A.-based indie rocker, opened for Ben Folds Five and performed admirably for the sparse pre-headliner crowd. The singer-songwriter's band was at its best when pianist Alex Kweskin joined Francis on vocals and created some truly gorgeous layered harmonies. For the most part, though, Robert Francis supplied a pleasant, if not particularly memorable, start to the evening.

Thankfully, Ben Folds Five's dynamic and personable performance delivered a show that fans in attendance will remember far into the future.

Talkbacks

brewerfan13 | June 29, 2012 at 8:47 a.m. (report)

Saw them in 2000 and again last night. Such a fun show! It appears that time has caused them to mellow out a bit, but Ben can still rock a piano. Was a little disappointed there was no fun cover song that they usually do (Video Killed the Radio Star or Tiny Dancer), or one of the coordinated sing-a-longs, I was still really satisfied with the set list and show overall. Can't wait for the new album.

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