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Ben Folds Five, Tonic, The Bad Livers

Ben Folds Five
October 20

With only a piano, drums, and bass, Ben Folds Five has continued to outrun the novelty label that's naturally attached to its simplistic, guitarless formula. But if last Wednesday's show at the Agora is any indication, the band has begun to lose some ground.

After the mainstream alternative success of the song "Brick" a few years back, the North Carolina group initially seemed poised for greater things. Then came this year's The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, a forgettable album that has seemingly ruined the band's plans for superstardom. But perhaps that's bandleader Ben Folds's plan. Maybe the yearning, emotional singer-pianist would be content to play small theaters the rest of his years.

Live, Ben Folds Five essentially has two gears: It plays either aggressive, piano-driven, fun-filled ditties or sad, melancholic, dose-of-reality songs and expects the audience to alternately celebrate or empathize. The formula it follows quickly becomes tiresome.

For example, "Army," "Battle of Who Could Care Less," and "Your Redneck Past" were terrific sing-alongs with clever lyrics. All were played enthusiastically, with Folds hunched (sometimes standing) over his piano, banging away. Then the band played slow songs -- tracks like "Hospital Song" and "Magic" -- that upset the pacing. The roller coaster never seemed to stop.

Granted, the rhythm section was solid, as bassist Robert Sledge often played guitar-like harmonics on his bass, and Darrin Jesse provided a tight backbeat on the drums. Their backup singing also made the band sound noticeably different from its last area performance -- when it opened for Beck in June of '98. Specializing in airy "bah, bah, bahs," they often sounded like something from the soundtrack to a late-'60s French porn film. You half expected Austin Powers to come out and start dancing underneath the rainbow of lights.

The new track, "Narcolepsy," adequately represented what the band had to offer live, bouncing between loud, discordant notes of frustration and butterfly piano keys. To unfamiliar ears, this song was overbearing, but it was what the audience had come to hear.

Train opened up with a nonthreatening set of granola rock. The five-piece created plenty of atmosphere with its jazzy, languid beats and loose vocals. By the end, it had the audience stomping their feet and chugging along. But they didn't seem as though they quite knew where they were going.

-- John Benson

October 18

Wearing a cowboy hat (when did these things become trendy?) and a black shirt and jeans, goateed Tonic singer Emerson Hart looked like a typical L.A. hipster as he took the stage for Tonic's solo "club" date at the Odeon (for most of its current tour, the band is opening for the Goo Goo Dolls at larger venues). Saying that he was pleased to have more than the 45 minutes the Goo Goos usually allot his band, Hart took the opportunity to vent. "A lot of people were telling us to do things we didn't want to do," he said in reference to the recording of Tonic's forthcoming album Sugar (due out November 9). "So we said, "Fuck you. We don't want to put out any shit.' It's all about the music, not about this cowboy hat."

Okay, but the cowboy hat had seemingly put some rebelliousness into Hart's stage mannerisms. After all, the band's biggest hits, tracks like "Open Up Your Eyes" and "If You Could Only See" (both of which are from the band's 1996 debut Lemon Parade), are wimpy ballads about getting burned by love that have struck a chord with easily hurt guys and gals everywhere. Performed live, the songs didn't always connect. In fact, at one point, Hart stopped the show to berate one fan who kept talking about NASCAR racing as he poured his heart out -- and this came right after he complained that the crowd wasn't noisy enough.

Tonic tried to put some crunch into tracks like "Casual Affair" (which was punctuated with flashing strobe lights) and the current single, the moody "Knock Down Walls." But the band's real strength lies in its rootsy instrumentation (Sugar, like Lemon Parade, features lots of slide guitar and strings) and polished songwriting. Tracks like "Waiting for the Light to Change," "You Wanted More," and "Mean to Me" showcased the band's ability to write good music, but with too much hipper-than-thou attitude and not enough musical flourish, the songs lost much of their luster. -- Jeff Niesel

The Bad Livers
The Broken Circle of Gospel Deluxe
Peabody's DownUnder
October 21

Having spent most of the afternoon and early evening driving through what they called the "Amish vortex" as they were lost on their way from Philadelphia to Cleveland, the Bad Livers looked more discombobulated than usual as they came into Peabody's. Their slightly disheveled appearance somehow seemed appropriate, though, especially considering that the Austin, Texas-based band comes across as a cross between the Stooges and Bill Monroe.

The Bad Livers hadn't even arrived at the club in time to do a sound check, but after ripping through an instrumental number and "tuning the feedback," as they put it, the duo was ready to go. The banjo 'n' bass combo of singer-banjo player Danny Barnes and bassist-tuba player Mark Rubin represents one of music's stranger conceptions. The two sped up the tempos of their songs, which are rooted in traditional bluegrass, to create hillbilly music for an alt-rock-savvy crowd. With as much personality as Click and Clack (the "Car Talk" guys), Barnes and Rubin continually bantered with the audience. Even though they said "we are anything but a request band," they gave in by playing "The Adventures of Pee Pee the Sailor," a song for which one fan had incessantly shouted, and broke into an obscure polka because, as Rubin put it, "I figured you people in Cleveland would be able to relate."

Claiming to be from Mississippi, the Broken Circle of Gospel Deluxe (they're really from Columbus) put on a fantastic show that was a clever send-up of a gospel revue. Led by Brother Billy, the band rifled through a selection of songs that included tunes by Tom Waits and Hank Williams, in addition to redemption songs about Jesus saving sinners. And, as Billy pointed out, there were plenty of sinners at Peabody's, enthusiastically hooting and hollering every time he tried to convert them with satirical speeches about following the straight and narrow path. -- Niesel

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