I got my first Ben Folds CD in 2001, five years before I got my first phone that could take pictures that I could share on Facebook. I only mention this because the majority of Ben Folds concerts I have been to–well, ALL of the ones I had been to before Tuesday night–happened before October of 2006. It isn’t exactly a novel idea that smart phones are removing us from experiences; it is now officially socially acceptable to whip out our phones at any “important” event and document it to death. At weddings, parades, birthday parties, graduations and concerts, it often seems like people are more interested in letting other people know they are there then in actually mentally being there for real. But I have never seen such a stark example of living through your cellphone versus living through your brain as Ben Folds at The Mountain Winery.
(Have you been to The Mountain Winery? Oh my god, if you can afford it, you should go. Pro tip which I did not know: you can picnic outside the venue and it is for real a mountain winery, with a crazy view, trees, picnic tables and fresh air. So get there early and have a picnic!)
Anyway, the venue is amazing but definitely caters to a different crowd than I am used to seeing at a Ben Folds concert (“used to” in the sense I haven’t been to one in seven years “used to”). Even though the Barenaked Ladies were the headliner and I would say they cater to a slightly older, more serious crowd than Ben, I was surprised by how old, serious and wealthy this crowd was. Not that I have any problem with the older, more serious and wealthier than me, but if there is one thing about a Ben Folds concert it is: you have to sing a long. So that’s fine if you’re old and wealthy but not if you’re too serious.
I went to Tuesday’s show at The Mountain Winery with my long-time Ben-loving friend Jessie as my photographer. Jessie and I have been seeing Ben together since we weren’t even old enough to buy alcohol at the shows. We’ve sang along with Ben in Seattle, Eugene, Portland and Jessie even saw him at Coachella 10 years ago when tickets were only $100 and you didn’t have to spend a grand on a hipster outfit just to be let in the gates. Once when we saw Ben open for Tori Amos, we got to be right up against the stage because our loud singing was so horrifying to the Tori fans that they cleared a place for us while one muttered under his breath: “I hope they don’t know any Tori songs.”
“Don’t worry,” we said to each other later, “We don’t.”
The opposite of the Tori fans were the Rufus Wainright fans we encountered at another show, in Portland. They were so down to sing, it didn’t matter if they did or did not know the words.
Which brings us to The Mountain Winery. Jessie and I had great seats (there isn’t a bad seat in the whole place actually) and when Ben started the amphitheater was only half full. We felt self-conscious singing along to the first song, “Selfless Cold and Composed,” but it was awesome to see Ben playing with his original band (Robert Sledge on bass and Darren Jessee on drums–we’ve actually never seen them all together), so we did it anyway. I realized the guy next to me was also singing, and that there was a couple up front that was singing too, and so we just went with it. This might sound strange if you aren’t a Ben Folds fan, but I’m telling you, it’s JUST HOW IT’S DONE (was done, anyway, back when we were in our early twenties).
As the seats began to fill though, I started noticing a couple things: 1. A lot of people were chatting. 2. The people that weren’t chatting were texting or tweeting or taking pictures. 3. Ben Folds wasn’t looking at the audience very much. That last one was the most disconcerting. Every show of his I have ever been to has been an interactive experience. He breaks the audience into groups to sing harmonies and tells crazy stories about the origins of songs. Not on Tuesday. Instead he wailed on the piano, looking straight ahead, in my mind, trying to avoid the fact that the crowd seemed to be avoiding him and willing himself into a distant place full of roaring imaginary fans.
Jessie and I continued to sing, while more and more fancy looking people filled in the seats and the guy next to me quieted down. As Ben started in on his his big song, the one that got him famous, the one about his high school girlfriend’s abortion, “Brick,” people quieted down a bit and started filming on their phones. The song is one of the reasons I love Ben Folds, one of the reasons I was originally drawn to him. His music, much like the writing of Dave Eggers when I was 18, opened me up to the idea that telling honest, first person narratives about your life, even if you are just an average kid, is powerful and important. He’s one of the reasons that I am a writer and I have always respected the way he handles this abortion story: owning his perspective and acknowledging the complexity of the issue. The fact that it became a hit song and made him tons of money must still occasionally keep him up at night. Hearing Ben and his band sing “Brick” 16 years after it made them famous and 13 years after the band officially broke up, was poignant and beautiful and sad. And the fact that half the people in the audience were filming it was ridiculous.
I realized then that Jessie and I were trying to relive a moment we could never get back. What we wanted was that totally unbridled excitement of paying your last $20 to scream words out along with your hero and your best friends. To live exactly in the present and feel that joy along with the guy up on stage and the people, most of them strangers, around you. Something transcendent and spiritual. Instead we had to sit in our seats and when we sang to each other: “Go ahead you can laugh all you want to/I got my philosophy/Keeps my feet on the ground,” Ben wasn’t really singing with us, even though he was only a handful of rows away and he was definitely singing.
I also realized something else: the people at this event who were doing something social unacceptable were us, singing our hearts out. At some point between 2005 and 2013, the balance had shifted and something that was once completely unacceptable: holding a recording device in front of your face at a live performance, had become more acceptable than its complete opposite: joining your voice and your spirit with the performer and the audience so you all become one thundering organism. Of course this isn’t really shocking news to me but to experience it so clearly, comparing one experience of the same musician, even of the same musician singing the same song, to another, made me feel sad and old.
But here’s the thing: Ben Folds still rocks. He still plays the piano like its a full-contact sport. And I have a feeling that this complete disconnection from the audience, and the fact that we have forced him to become a static nostalgic relict instead of a powerful force in our lives, is making him mad, which might actually be a good thing because in a surprising turn, his new music was all awesome. One of the new songs even had a line that he repeated a bunch, in true Ben Folds fashion, that sounded like: “If you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on a wall.”
If I am honest, if we are all honest, probably no one wants to go back to 2001 to 2005. College was messy, after college was messy. George W. Bush. The beginning of the wars. Adulthood. Drinking. Heartbreak. We were sad and confused and angry and also acutely aware of how crazy privileged we were and how silly it was to feel so sad. So I am glad I am 30 and glad Ben Folds is 46. But I still hope that someday I can see him play again, hopefully for under $100, in a dark, packed room, where no one has a smart phone, and he tells us stories, and everyone there is ready to sing.