The Ben Folds and a Piano tour of 2002 offered fans just that: the man and his instrument. Culled from those performances, Ben Folds Live documents Folds, his piano, and most importantly, his songs. Most of Ben Folds Live's tracks were first recorded by Ben Folds Five, with live versions of four songs from Folds' solo debut, Rockin' the Suburbs, also included. The classic trappings of live albums are still present. While the new versions of the familiar tunes are at times interesting and the new arrangements often reveal musical (and more often lyrical) nuances that may have gone unnoticed in the more ornately produced studio albums, there are also some gaping holes. Folds has always had a golden touch with harmonies and was blessed with a phenomenal rhythm section to breathe life into his material with Ben Folds Five. However, when the drums don't kick in during the first few bars of "Army," the song falls flat. Luckily, Folds enlists the audiences' help to sing "Army"'s horn parts and "Not the Same"'s background vocals with great results. Ben Folds Live runs into trouble at the other end of the spectrum as well, with some tracks that are so similar to the original versions that they're rendered redundant. Cake's John McCrea deftly reprises his role as harmony vocalist on the exquisite "Fred Jones Part 2," but there is little to differentiate it from the album version. The payoff for Folds' fans comes, not surprisingly, from the previously unheard material. The bluesy "Silver Street" is the highlight of the entire release, while the cover of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" is more faithful to the original recording than what you'd hear at John's latter-day concerts. Some stage banter is included, but not on the songs that need it the most. Anyone present at the Ben Folds and a Piano shows was treated to the story behind "One Down," written while Folds owed his publishing company 4.6 songs before satisfying his contract. The song's punch line: "One down and 3.6 to go," makes little sense out of context, and unfortunately the album offers no explanation. Ben Folds Live is an excellent supplement to his fans' libraries, and although the songs rarely work well enough to surpass the previous studio incarnations, there are a few revelations that make listening well worth it. Also, there aren't likely to be too many other live solo-piano pop/rock albums released in the near future. That alone warrants a listen or two.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Vanderhoff
feat: John McCrea