It may not be much of a stretch to call Ben Folds the Liberace of the pop world. In terms of musicianship and sheer showmanship, Folds is a master of his craft, and it's doubtful that the glittery showman would disagree with the comparison.

The singer's skills are quite evident on Ben Folds Five's first live album, appropriately titled 'Ben Folds Five Live.' The trio, consisting of Folds on piano and vocals, Darren Jessee on drums and Robert Sledge on bass, revel in their mastery on this record, and having weathered their share of personal and professional storms, they've certainly earned the right to do so. The band formed in 1993, broke up in 2000 and reunited in 2011 with new material and a tour. Last year's 'The Sound of the Life of the Mind,' their first album since 1999, gets the spotlight treatment on 'Ben Folds Five Live,' though the disc also some classic older songs the Folds faithful will no doubt appreciate.

But one doesn't have to be a hardcore BFF disciple to enjoy 'Ben Folds Five Live.' Even if this is album is your entrée to the band, you might just become a convert after giving it a single spin. The band's emotional range is one of a kind, and here, that really shines through. There's a gorgeous and inimitable kind of nostalgia that runs through the group's compositions, and yet whether they're in the studio or performing live, they maintain a rare playfulness.

The thread connecting those emotional extremes, of course, is the stunning songwriting. While this is hardly an obscure band, it often feels like Folds' songwriting — sometimes raw, sometimes impish, but never maudlin — is a well-kept secret. Critics tend to focus on his piano playing, and while he's a remarkable instrumentalist, his phenomenal writing ought to earn him recognition as a master.

Onstage, the band adds flourishes to the studio arrangements, and on 'Ben Folds Five Live,' these convey the joy that the group has for not only for music, but for the sheer act of performing. And in a time when true performers are few and far between (and studio sterility is prized), it's genuinely refreshing to hear musicians simply having a great time.

The takeaway on 'Ben Folds Five Live': The boys are old pros in every sense of the word. If the album doesn't quite recreate the experience of seeing the trio in concert, fans seeking vicarious thrills will get a rare treat: an audio snapshot of a band doing what comes naturally.

9 out of 10 rating

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