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2003-03-20 - 12:29 a.m.

For the last year I’ve been rating Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Hordern Pavillion (January ’02) as probably the best gig I’ve seen. After last night I may have to reconsider. It’s a little ironic though that after a gig as awesome as last night, headlined by a man whose entire back catalogue I own, you still feel tinges of disappointment because he didn’t play such-and-such a song. The Bad Seeds on the other hand could have graced the stage, ripped into “The Mercy Seat” and walked off and I probably would have been as blown away as I was.

But I digress. No wait- I sense a segue…. as the dulcet tones of Johnny Cash on the PA- doing justice to songs such as U2’s “One” and (wait for it…) Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat”- faded, the stage was graced by three short men, all called Ben. Australia’s own precociously talented Ben Lee meandered over to stage right, picking up an electric bass. Texan prodigy Ben Kweller took centre stage with an acoustic guitar, and adopted Australian piano virtuoso Ben Folds took his place at… the drum kit- we were in for an interesting night. In fact Folds started his musical life as a drummer, taking up the piano as a vehicle for songwriting.

The 3-piece began the night with a Ben Kweller song (it might have been “Walk on Me”), an opening number energetic enough to have Kweller apologise for a broken E-string. No matter, a last minute change to the electric before the Bens launched into the first of 4 collaborations they recorded recently at Folds’ Nashville studio. “Stop” was a catchy pop/rock effort driven by Lee’s staccato bass playing.

As Bens Folds and Lee left the stage, Kweller thanked the stage-hand for fixing his guitar, put it down, and took a seat at the piano for the quirky title track to his album “Sha Sha”, which sounded like it would have fit perfectly on a They Might Be Giants album. Then back to the acoustic for one of many priceless moments the night had to offer. “Stop, collaborate and listen- BK’s back with my brand new invention…” You guessed it- a rocking cover of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”.

Kweller’s originals were awesome, a song about the psychological state of butterflies, the contemplative “Make it Up”, a couple of tender ballads, before sending out a kudos to Triple J for playing his radio hit “Wasted and Ready”. Then it was time to get Ben Folds back in on the act, playing piano as Kweller casually leaned on it, microphone in hand to sing his song “Falling”. The final Kweller song, his latest single “Commerce, Texas” saw the Ben’s take their original 3-piece positions, and Kweller rocking so hard he not only broke his guitar strap, but snapped the screw which held it in half. This called for an impromptu jam, and a quick set list change, Kweller taking drums and Folds taking piano and one of those harmonica/keyboard hybrid things (hey, nobody said this was a professional review) for Lee’s “Nothing Much Happens”.

After about 10 minutes work from the stage hand, Kweller’s guitar was fixed, only to see him and Folds leave the stage for a solo set by Lee. For me this was the least inspiring part of the night, but I kept myself occupied watching Lee’s Hollywood girlfriend Claire Danes dancing away at the side of the stage. There’s no doubting Ben Lee’s talent and songwriting ability, but most of his textured pop songs don’t translate well into a solo electric set. He took us through “Tornados”, “September” (which he wrote for Australian band Waikiki) and “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” before covering Sinead O’Connor’s 1990 single “The Emporer’s New Clothes”. His last solo song was “Dirty Mind”, before Ben Kweller entered to accompany him on piano for a song that’s name eludes me, and the third Ben joined the *ahem* Fold for Lee’s “Running With Scissors”.

Next it was Folds’ turn on piano with Lee, claiming it was time to play a hit. Could it be “Cigarette’s Will Kill You”, which made the #2 spot in Triple J’s Hottest 100 of ’98? No, in fact it was the second priceless moment of the night- a cover of the Divinyls’ #1 hit from 1991- “I Touch Myself”.

As Lee left the stage and Folds began the opening bars of “Zak and Sara”, I felt this wave of elation sweep over me. For all the interaction between these talented musicians, nothing compares to seeing what Ben Folds can do to a grand piano. Next up was “Kate”, followed by one of his earliest songs- “Eddie Walker”, which he explained was about a friend who was in a clinic on medication who he’d come to visit and go through old photos with. “This one’s you when you were small/ and you’re learning how to walk/ they pick you up and you keep falling down”. As the sad but jaunty piece faded into nothing (“we’re gonna leave you Eddie Walker”), Folds broke into his showpiece- “Philosophy”, with the intstrumental “Misirlou” fused into the outro, as well as a bizarre homoerotic ad-lib about driving a friend home and the benefits of being able to watch TV and… be entertained at the same time.

From the energetic “Philosophy” to the beautiful “Evaporated”, to the human brass section of “Army”, Folds knew how to work the crowd. Kweller and Lee returned to accompany him on “Missing the War”, then the second of the collaborations- “Crossfire”, a synth pop tribute to the like of Mi-Sex and Soft Cell highlighted by Kweller’s robotic drumming and Folds’ synthesizer (in a synth-pop song? surely not??). Folds was then left on his own again to close the main set with another crowd-participation number- “Not the Same”, the oft-told true story of a friend who took acid at a friend’s party (I’m told the host was actually BFF drummer Darren Jessee, but bassist Robert Sledge had a more rock name for the song), climbed a tree, stayed up all night and came down a born again Christian.

To say the encore was full of surprises would be an understatement. The first song of the encore saw Ben Kweller on bass, Lee on electric guitar and Folds doing acoustic guitar arpeggios for “a song I wrote on guitar”, none other than his signature tune “Brick”. Following this was the third of the collaborations, “Bruised”- with Folds on lead vocals and a switch from guitar to piano mid-song. Folds completed the circle with a move to the drum kit, as Kweller played the piano riff of Lee’s “Cigarette’s Will Kill You”. It was after this that someone in the audience yelled out “play some Chisel!” A strange request at such a gig you might think- but at his last solo appearance at the Enmore Folds took as through a few verses of the Aus-rock classic “Khe Sanh”, figuring as he was now an Australian resident he should get familiar with it.

Not one to disappoint, the familiar strains of piano that are heard every Saturday night at thousands of pubs across Australia and three times a day on Triple M radio rang out, as the three Bens stumbled through the words, Aussie born and bred Lee having the least trouble.

As they got to the “…last plane outta Sydney’s almost gone” part, I was marveling at how gravelly Folds’ voice had got, blissfully unaware that emerging from the side of the stage, microphone in hand, three-day growth proudly on display, was Australian icon Jimmy Barnes. This was definitely the funniest moment of the entire night. “Benny Barnes” said they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, as Folds rubbed his fingers together to suggest it may have been a large sum of money. Dare I suggest Barnes should be more flattered to play with them than the other way round? While he was up there, Barnes took the lead for a version of “The Weight”, a hit for The Band in the sixties and for Barnes himself and the Badloves in the nineties.

The final song for the night was another original collaboration, the lead track of the EP- “Just Pretend”. I was left forlornly hoping that the Bens would reappear, one by one, and declare “I was never cool in school”, but I could hardly be disappointed after the show they put on.


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