In a Key All His Own
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Ben Folds has the appearance of someone you might find spilling off your couch the morning after a rough night. Mussed hair, beard stumbling across his boyish face, hazy, bemused eyes behind plastic framed glasses. But don’t let the disheveled look fool you. Beneath the unkempt, who-gives-a-rip demeanor lies a performer whose skills are very kempt and who would gladly give away all his rips.
Folds is many things: an extremely busy producer, an in-demand collaborator, a composer, a photographer and a solo performer. Folds brings his current solo tour, Ben Folds and a Piano, to Honeywell Center in Wabash on Tuesday, October 4. In addition to the evening’s performance Folds will host a special VIP pre-show event called AMAA (Ask Me Almost Anything … about music): A Ben Folds master class.
Playful, sardonic, irreverent and immensely talented, Folds is an entertaining guy to watch. He pounds the keys of his piano with his elbows, tells stories about the songs he’s playing, winks and nods with the audience and sometimes threatens to hurl his piano stool across the stage.
It’s been a year since Folds (who turned 50 on September 12) released So There, an album that serves as a good example of his range. It opens with eight new songs written with the Brooklyn-based, alt-chamber sextet yMusic. Half strings, half things you blow into, yMusic is the perfect vehicle for Folds’ talents and his sensibilities.
The rest of So There is a 20-minute studio recording of his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra featuring the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
In a recent interview with PopMatters, Folds talked about how popular music, rock n’ roll especially, has lost its spontaneity.
“What I just did with yMusic, a song was charted and arranged in a few hours, recorded in less time than that, and it didn’t have to sound like anything. That’s what I think rock n’ roll should be. But rock n’ roll has become something with a lot of rules about it: it needs to be perfectly in time and in tune, and the computers are used a whole lot. Like I say, I don’t think that necessarily makes it bad, but I think most of the gold was mined out of the art form probably in the 60s, and then you’d find chunks here and there, whether it was Queen or Nirvana, and then I think since then you’re just mining for dust now.”
As the frontman for Ben Folds Five, the sort of alt-punk trio from the 90s that made Folds a star, he was already redefining what a rock band could look like. With just drums, bass and Folds’ percussive, melodic piano playing, Ben Folds Five demonstrated that a rock band could succeed in the grunge-filled decade without the benefit of an electric guitar. Songs such as “Brick,” “Army” and “Battle of Who Could Care Less” also showcased Folds’ knack for writing both highly emotional and highly sarcastic and ironic lyrics.
Lyrically and musically, So There continues Folds’ style of combining ambiguity and virtuosity.
The song “Capable of Anything” begins with a delicate flute dancing over cheery piano chords anticipating a delicate and cheery lyric. Anticipate again. “What is this /it doesn’t make much sense / they sing it like a pop song / you’re capable of anything /I’m sure they meant / you could be president.”
Folds was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. When he was nine his father, a carpenter, brought home a piano that he bartered from a customer who couldn’t pay his bill. Folds began picking out Elton John and Billy Joel tunes by ear. In high school, he played bass and drums in several different bands. After high school, he went to University of Miami’s Frost School of Music where he studied percussion. He almost graduated. Instead, he left to work on piano, then moved to New Jersey to act in theater troupes in nearby New York City.
All the while he continued pursuing music, eventually moving back to North Carolina where he started his trio, Ben Folds Five. (Even the name of his band is a joke.)
Ben Folds Five released three albums in the mid-to-late 90s, broke up in 1999, reformed in 2008 for a one-off concert, split, reformed in 2011, released a fourth album in 2012, then called it quits again. In between and following bouts with Ben Folds Five, Folds released three full-length solo records, three EPs, six albums of collaborations with other artists and six live/compilation CDs. He spent 10 years touring the country playing his songs with orchestras. (His 2014 appearance with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic at the Embassy earned a Whammy as Best National Concert.)
Fold has recorded with Kesha, Regina Spektor, Sara Bareilles, Amanda Palmer, Weird Al Yankovic and William Shatner. He spent five years as a judge on NBC’s hit contest series The Sing Off. He’s also worked on projects with British writers Neil Gaiman and Nick Hornby.
If his studio work is inventive and spontaneous, his concert performances are inspired. His shows are a mix of funny commentary, brilliant musicianship and crowd-sourced riffing. The song “Rock This Bitch,” which he rewrites with the help of the audience at every performance, has become a staple of his act.
And it’s that easy-going rapport of his that makes it seem almost possible that someday it could be your couch he crashes on.