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Ben Folds Five led by pianist Folds' percussive energy


Ben Folds Five.

Caroline Records.

Concert at Mama Kin.

Saturday, March 23.

By Joel M. Rosenberg

Ever want to be one of those people who knew about a band before they became huge? Well now's your chance, although soon it'll be too late. Ben Folds Five is a trio (yes, a trio) out of Chapel Hill. They've adapted a rare configuration of piano, bass, and drums, leaving out guitar, and have produced a self-described sound that's "punk rock for sissies."

Led by pianist Ben Folds, with Robert Sledge on an awesome sounding bass and Darren Jessee banging away on his driving-yet-conservative drums, the group released their self-titled debut album, Ben Folds Five, in late 1995 on Caroline Records. Since then, they've been pseudo-punk rocking their way across the country.

Their influences can't be traced directly, although guesses have ranged from Freddy Mercury to Elton John to Billy Joel to George Gershwin, with some Beatles for good measure. Folds has only one year of formal piano training, but his earlier drumming years and great ear make that point trivial. The drumming experience is easily seen in Ben's percussive style. What's more, Sledge and Jessee manage to harmonize with Folds even while kicking on their own instruments. This is truly a rare combination of musicians.

Some of the songs on the album would be smash hits if the world was a better place and they got more radio time. Folds shows off his stuff on the album opener, "Jackson Cannery," pushing the song along by banging on his keys and singing in his slightly-imperfect-but-just-right voice; you've got to hear it to understand. "Philosophy" tries to convey the idea of sticking with what you like, even if nobody else does, and it does so to a well composed, catchy melody.

"Underground" pokes fun at the whole punk scene by putting lines like, "Hand me my nose ring/Show me the mosh pit," to a theme Folds describes as similar to Jesus Christ Superstar's; this too needs to be heard. And "Boxing," the sentimental closer to the album, uses Mohammed Ali's indecision about boxing retirement to show someone wanting to quit something, but wanting even more to have someone stop him. These are smart lyrics to be sure. The rest of the songs are equally as good.

The stage show is great as well, as they showed at Mama Kin on Saturday, March 23. The band travels around the country in a Rider truck specifically so Ben can play his personal Baldwin baby grand piano. It's no wonder nobody in their right mind would give him their piano, since he proceeds to beat the hell out of it during the show. He repeatedly bangs on the keys with his entire forearm, occasionally kicks the keys down for musical effect, and on his way up to a better view of the crowd atop his instrument, he even steps on the keys to create what he calls "drama."

At the show, they played every song off their album, plus a few new tunes. The more songs they come up with, the worse Ben's childhood seems. "One Angry Dwarf" and "Two Hundred Solemn Faces," for example, is basically about a guy who grows up to be successful just to rub it in the faces of people from his past. The phrase, "kiss my ass," comes up a lot. On a few of the songs Ben used that rare rock and roll instrument, the melodica, which was awesome.

The encore included an obscure choice for a cover, "Video Killed the Radio Star," which was quite nostalgic coming from a band raised on MTV. Most importantly, they proved that all this sound actually comes from a band which lacks a guitar. It's not an accident that most rock bands have one, and these guys have to pick up the slack as a result, and they do so remarkably well.

If you want to hear the band for yourself, check out for some clips and other good stuff. The proof is in the music. Just don't miss this opportunity to get in on an incredible band near the ground floor.