Screen Shot 2013-07-17 at 10.15.00 AM
LiveDC: Barenaked Ladies/ Guster/ Ben Folds Five @ Merriweather
July 17, 2013 | 10:45AM

all words: Dan Singer, all photos: Marie Formica

I’d be flat out lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the Last Summer on Earth Tour when it made its way to Merriweather Post Pavilion on Monday. Sure, maybe it was only a few steps up the credibility ladder from the Sugar Ray/Gin Blossoms/Smash Mouth summer touring lineup, and maybe the median-aged attendee was losing some hair, but I don’t think the point of this tour was to breed hip Coachella attractions.

BNLBNL

At the same time, it wasn’t simply a stage for “those two hit songs and 10 others” either. For a group of bands riding the effervescent ‘90s nostalgia train, Guster, Ben Folds Five and Barenaked Ladies have amiable discographies that contain numerous clever, hooky songs. They may be considered all too vanilla compared to the current pop landscape, but I keep coming back to these bands year after year and I’m sure others do as well. While the Last Summer on Earth Tour was by no means flawless or game-changing, I couldn’t help but leave Merriweather with a smile on my face.

BNL

 

The evening kicked off with a brief set from Boothby Graffoe, an English musical comic and friend of Barenaked Ladies who has opened for several of their UK tours. At first glance, Boothby came across like your one friend’s dad who makes strange faces and thinks he’s funnier than he really is. But I was quickly won over when his jokes took some unexpectedly surreal turns. There was a song about a man-eating polar bear, and I believe I heard the phrase “pussycat testicles” at some point. Boothby appeared to have his anti-humor and bulging eyes down to a science, and he received some pleasant accompaniment from three Barenaked Ladies. As the faint smell of weed diffused across the lawn, I decided that Boothby would make a kickass dad, if he isn’t one already.

BNL

 

Next up was Guster. The band has a healthy following, but they’re often unfairly tagged with one-dimensional labels that hardly do their music justice. Guster have always had a stellar sense of melodicism, as well as a keen understanding of dynamics. Call them folk-pop, alternative, college rock, Jewish, whatever. It’s smart, easily digestible music that takes a snobby pair of raised eyebrows to truly hate. Guster had a friend in the Rolling Stone-approved Merriweather Post Pavilion, which gave the band’s jangly, percussive sound plenty of breathing room. Touching on every album but their debut, they were loose and playful throughout the set. “Airport Song” and the masturbation ode “Barrel of a Gun” were highlights, but singalongs from 2010’s Easy Wonderful like “Do You Love Me” and closer “This Could All Be Yours” held their own against the band’s earlier material. Guster may be showing slight signs of aging after over 20 years together, but their output remains as sharp as ever.

Ben FoldsBen Folds

 

 

I saw the newly reunited Ben Folds Five play Merriweather at the Virgin FreeFest in October, and I remember experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance. The band was enthusiastic, the pit was riled up and the classics were coming one by one, but the sound was way too muddy for me to lose myself in the music and feel like I was experiencing anything beyond obligatory nostalgia. I don’t know what the difference was this time around (maybe a more thorough soundcheck?), but from the lawn, Ben Folds Five sounded pristine. Despite breaking some piano strings, Folds’ vigorous playing found a nice pocket in the mix. Robert Sledge’s name perfectly fits his fuzzy, madcap basslines, and in concert they were like roller coasters, twisting and bending without hesitation. It would be rude not to mention the steady drumming of Darren Jessee, since I gave nods to Folds and Sledge. Ben Folds Five is a deceiving band name.

Ben Folds

 

 

Initially, I didn’t love The Sound of the Life of the Mind, the band’s reunion album from last year, but some of the new tracks they played are growing on me. “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” is harmonically rich, and “Draw A Crowd” and “Do It Anyway” are reminiscent of the bouncy snark of the first two Ben Folds Five albums. Best of all was the ballad “Sky High,” which was delicately sustained as the sunset faded to darkness. “Brick” followed, and this one-two punch made for the show’s loveliest, and most captivating, stretch.

Ben Folds

The old songs didn’t disappoint either, as “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” “Underground” and “Song for the Dumped” (featuring a “Do you even lift, bro?” vamp) served as reminders of how much fun Ben Folds Five can be. The band bookended their set with reggae versions of “Rock This Bitch,” appropriate for the disgustingly humid Maryland weather.

Ben Folds

 

 

I was content with the two and a half hours of music I had just heard, so it didn’t really bug me that Barenaked Ladies were more subdued than their openers. They are not the same band without former co-frontman Steven Page — the fans know it, and they know it — and as much as I would’ve loved to hear more Page songs (or Gordon in its entirety), I knew it wasn’t going to happen. The band was smart to move into their adulthood phase without replacing Page, and the songs they played from June’s Grinning Streak were pleasant enough for a summer barbecue I’ll host in 10 years. I wouldn’t exactly call this stuff arena-headlining material, but it was harmless and gently catchy at its weakest.

BNL

 

Also smart: Barenaked Ladies’ use of their tourmates to liven up their set. Ben Folds jammed along to “If I Had $1,000,000,” and Boothby had an endearing turn on lead vocals during “Be My Yoko Ono,” including a Yoko scream that shapeshifted into a brilliant Gollum impression. These songs are ingrained in my musical lexicon at this point in my life, and the ability to still share experiences with others through them is more important to me than their authenticity.

BNL

With that being said, it was bittersweet to hear Ed Robertson take over Page’s vocals on the 1997 hit “The Old Apartment,” a song about “fading memories, blending into dull tableaux.” When Robertson sang “I want them back” repeatedly in the closing refrain, I wondered how satisfied the Ladies are with their current state of optimistic complacency. Then they dove right into the ending leg with their traditionally sloppy rendition of “Alcohol” and a cover of “Blister in the Sun.”

BNL

 

 

Barenaked Ladies did not become a Canadian success story because of Steven Page alone. The four-piece remains spirited and witty, and even with a critical ear, I still respond to that. No matter what, I will always attempt to rap the verses of “One Week” (and fail). I will always wince at the theme song for “The Big Bang Theory.” That’s part of the fun of music fandom — feeling like you know something so well that it comes alive in ways that are uniquely personal. For me at least, that was my takeaway from this tour as a whole. Hopefully we’re not actually going through our global warming-induced last summer on Earth, but I was more than happy to spend a warm summer night with these bands.

Ben FoldsBen FoldsBen FoldsBen FoldsBen FoldsBen FoldsBNLBNLBNLBNLBNLBNLBNLBNLBNLBNLBNLBNLBNL

Comments:

Your Email Address Will Not Be Published