Ben Folds Five @ The American Theatre
St. Louis, Missouri

Did you get your love and religion last week, folks? Because the Ben Folds boogie revue stopped in town on Valentine's Day to spread both the good and the bad words with blue songs, beautiful three-part harmonies and ivory tickles.

The Chapel Hill-based trio Ben Folds Five was an indie anomaly before Sony won last year's major-label bidding war. Folds plays a baby grand. There's no guitar in the band. And the odd lineup isn't annoying, precious or gimmicky.

Ben Folds Five (including Robert Sledge on bass and Darren Jessee on drums) makes big sounds and swells worthy of glitter and pomp, but it's still diehard indie outsider art — and the piano makes them freaks in a the notoriously guitar-addicted alternative subculture. A guitar may hit you in the gut, but Folds' piano hits you in the heart and his boyish looks and smooth tenor put a face and a voice on the beating.

The Feb.14 show at the American was a crowded affair for BF5 as they worked hard to continue to sell the band's nearly year-old “Whatever and Ever Amen,” a fine album full of post-collegiate doldrums and celebration. Opening with those familiar and upbeat “Ba-ba-ba-ba-baa” harmonies, BF5 quickly moved into “Philosophy” from the band's eponymous 1995 debut. The ensuing piano freakout recalled David Bowie's “Aladdin Sane” days.

But Ben Folds Five brings many artists to mind in the course of a listen, athough you can't pin down an overall influence. Folds is a gifted and energetic piano player and at different times one can hear Steely Dan, Billy Joel, Elton John, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Costello, Queen — even some literate punk rock and obnoxious show tunes. Throw in strings, as on “Selfless, Cold and Composed,” and you may even catch yourself thinking of a lugubrious Nick Drake arrangement.

But “Steven's Last Night in Town” was a fun and friendly number. The crowd clapped along as BF5 spun the tale of a guy who seemed to be perpetually leaving town, having the gang get together for one last, big night out... again... and again.

And as Folds did the last time he came through St. Louis, he again climbed his piano and swung the mic, flashing la mano cornuda (the horned hand) like a goof in his best hair-band stance.

It doesn't matter that Folds is balding and has a bit of a sagging chin, because when the band tore through “Fair,” “The Battle of Who Could Care Less” and “Jackson Cannery,” the piercing teen screamers in the audience were audible over Sledge's bass fuzzed-out and Jessee's jazzy hitting.

On the despondent hit “Brick,” the upright bass was sludgy but ideal. Folds' story of a secret abortion gives the listener an overview of a very sad and scary few weeks in the life of a young couple. The fact that the song is so popular is testament to Folds' talent for covering great ranges of emotions.

At times truly sad, otherwise jubilant and snotty (but always clever), the Folds dichotomy is beautiful if not curious. It's as if his upbeat left hand is therapy for the melancholy that sometimes grips his right.

Restrained on the band's most recent CD, “Smoke” came out as a persistent, terrifying ballad. Most of Folds' songs go somewhere else something when played live — usually taking on a riotous, almost venomous vigor — and “Song for the Dumped” highlighted that.

Committing to record so spiteful a recollection seems juvenile, especially when it's the song that follows the poignant “Brick,” as it did at this show as well. But live, “Dumped” sounded acidicly perfect in a twisted lover's day way. It was a big “whatever and ever amen” for those stuck in a hopeless Valentine's Daze.

The set ended with “Kate”: more luscious three-part harmonies and a good feeling all over. The rabid crowd called the band back to play one of its live standards, the Flaming Lips' “She Don't Use Jelly.” Full of more amazing harmonies, BF5's version was much more dynamic than the easy-going way Lips did it.

Folds and his bandmates are terminally likable and they endeared themselves to the crowd by being happy to be there; and by making sad songs appear to sound as good as happiness itself. Can I get an Amen?

By The Billy Keaggy | Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 1997i am