Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Ben Folds’ musical journey leads him to The Clyde

Alternative rocker bridges pop and classical music for a new audience

You can catch Ben Folds and a Piano at Clyde Theatre on Tuesday, March 28.

Wheat Williams

Whatzup Features Writer

Published March 15, 2023

Ben Folds is a musician with a story like no other, and it is still, well, unfolding. There are so many things about his career that can’t be compared to anybody else that we’re going to run out of ways to say “unique.”

He will be performing at The Clyde Theatre on Tuesday, March 28, as his Ben Folds and a Piano tour will see him singing, playing and recapitulating an unbelievable career. He will be debuting songs from his album, What Matters Most, to be released June 2, his first rock record in more than a decade. 

Something different 

Bursting onto the scene in 1995 with their first major-label album, Folds and two other musicians, evasively named Ben Folds Five, roared out of his hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with a sound that’s easy to describe yet elusive. At a time when electric guitar heroes dominated rock music, Folds sang and played acoustic grand piano, accompanied by a frenzied, fuzzed-out bass guitar and the over-the-top drumming. Folds called it “punk rock for sissies.” 

Their sound could be called lo-fi because of the gritty lack-of-recording-quality, but the startling musicianship and songcraft behind their pummeling sound demanded the listener’s sharp attention. 

The stunned music business labeled it alternative rock for lack of anything else to compare it to. Folds wrote angry, profane music with hilarious turns, but also elegiac ballads, especially the poignant “Brick” in 1997, still his best-known radio single. Strings and horns crept into the studio recordings, foreshadowing Folds’ later direction.

Across three albums and eight years of touring with a battered Baldwin baby grand piano, Ben Folds Five racked up millions of sales and gold and platinum awards across the world. 

Frequent tours and more than one marriage would give Folds a second home in Australia.

Going it alone

I was fortunate to have seen Folds in clubs in Nashville, Tennessee, as far back as 1990. In 1996 I interviewed him for a national magazine and spoke with him on several occasions since. Unfortunately Whatzup wasn’t able to arrange an interview with him this time, but his story remains as compelling as his music.

Studying classical percussion and upright bass, Folds obtained a scholarship as an orchestra player at the University of Miami in Florida, but he could not hold it due to his temper and his restlessness. Leaving school, he paid the bills with percussion and bass playing. 

He did a stint in a Broadway musical, then spent a couple of years in Nashville as a staff songwriter with a leading publishing company, but it all went nowhere. All this time his focus shifted to piano. He developed technical yet unconventional skills and the ability to incorporate a huge range of ideas from classical and pop music. He went back to North Carolina and launched Ben Folds Five.

When the their run ended in 2000, Folds was destined for greater things. He brought in a broader range of musicians, making more refined recordings and expanding his sound. He set up shop in Nashville as a solo artist and producer and released a series of critically acclaimed albums that charted steadily.

Known for producing and collaborating with singers like Regina Spektor and Sara Bareilles, Folds might best be remembered for writing and producing an album in 2004 with the most unlikely of artists, actor William Shatner, with whom he still writes and records. Please look up my interview with Shatner our Feb. 1 issue. (Shatner sends his love to Folds. He made me promise to say that.)

When the great flood of 2010 devastated Nashville, Folds’ most beloved grand piano was destroyed, and he labored to raise money and promote music education for disadvantaged children, which he still continues. When the wrecking ball threatened Music Row, he stepped in and saved the historic RCA Studio A where he recorded. 

Bringing classical to masses

After he debuted his concerto for piano and orchestra with the Nashville Symphony in 2014, which lead to his touring and playing with orchestras around the globe, Folds landed the job of a lifetime when The National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., brought him on as artistic advisor. He has produced years of concerts called Declassified and is refining how to make centuries of the music of great composers relevant to today’s audiences, with appearances by the likes of Bareilles, Spektor, and Shatner.

To learn about that, I watched an insightful 90-minute interview that blues rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa made with Folds in March 2021 over Zoom, which I encourage you to look up on YouTube.

“I took my advisory role very seriously,” he said from Australia. “I work with the orchestrators, go through all the scores to try to make an evening translate to an audience. 

“The symphony orchestra has traditionally, in our lifetimes and a little bit before, struggled to find a new audience as technology and popular music has taken a lot of the steam out of it, and changed people’s ears.

“It’s not revolutionary what I do with Kennedy Center, but I believe that my detailed, emphatic approach has been unusual and has yielded good, good stuff.”

He’s emphatic that while his piano and vocals can be amplified a bit, the orchestra isn’t amplified at all. In another video for the Nashville Symphony, he says, “You don’t bring in a drummer behind Plexiglas and guitars and loud stuff. This is the orchestra in their most natural environment. The symphony orchestra mixes themselves by design. When you start putting them through speakers, you are interfering with hundreds of years of a mix that has been perfected. And so we increasingly try to celebrate that rather than running from it. I don’t think they are back there as my props or to make me look important. I’m a guest with the symphony orchestras with which I have collaborated.”

With Bonamassa, he went into detail about how he works with professional arrangers to adapt and refine his own music and that of classical composers to make it accessible to an audience of rock fans but authentic and meaningful to the musicians who play it. 

“A classical composer was some dude who’s dead, who was very good at what they did, who had a story, who was very relatable,” he said. “But we don’t hear that music that way (today). So what you have to do is find a thread between a modern artist who is making music that we understand because we share the context. If you can draw those two together, you’ll hear people crying in moments in classical music that they never understood before. And that is so fulfilling for me to see an audience of 22-year-old kids, and then older rock people in there listening to something that they’d heard, but they’d never heard before that.”

From his forthcoming rock album, Folds has released “Winslow Gardens.” It’s a breezy pop tune about a family immigrating somewhere, maybe Australia. Folds plays it in a sneaky 7/8 time signature, with musical gestures more like Burt Bacharach than prog rock or classical. It just goes to show how diverse and fresh his music can be. 

We’ll have a chance to hear him play that at The Clyde, intimate and up close, with the distant reverberation of orchestras in grand halls beckoning down the road.


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