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Published: Thursday, 4/10/2008

Versatile piano man can range from takes on hip-hop to a softer side

BY BRIDGET THARP
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ben Folds will perform in Adrian College s Merillat Sport & Fitness Center s multi-purpose room. The concert will begin at 8:30 p.m. with the opening act  Ben Lee. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Ben Folds will perform in Adrian College s Merillat Sport & Fitness Center s multi-purpose room. The concert will begin at 8:30 p.m. with the opening act Ben Lee. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.
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Piano man Ben Folds doesn t shock easily.

After 10 years of touring first as the front man for Ben Folds Five, best known for the 1997 hit ballad Brick, then going solo when the band split in 2000, Folds thrills audiences by embracing the unexpected.

Scheduled to appear at Adrian College Wednesday, the 40-year-old singer-songwriter typically slams sometimes stomps songs out of the piano while coaching the crowd to cheer him on by singing along or adding a harmonic ba da da.

Gasping fans interrupted the song Jesusland when a stunt tricked them into believing a drunk guy dropped from a balcony during a concert for Myspace.com in Nashville in October, 2006. Folds even feigned open-mouth shock during the staged thud, when his crew dropped a dummy from the balcony during the soft miles and miles interlude of the song.

Not that Folds needs a stunt man to keep things interesting.

Before his special appearance with the Boston Pops last May, what should have been a study in good manners became a real brawl. A fist fight erupted in a balcony when one concert-goer told another to pipe down as the symphony performed before being joined by Folds.

On stage, Folds doesn t flinch when it comes to surprises. But when college administrators tried to censor his performance last month in Mount Berry, Ga., he was the one caught off-guard.

Their concern was Folds version of a hip-hop song, the name of which can t be printed in a family newspaper. The original track is on rapper Dr. Dre s 1992 album, The Chronic.

You know, the thing is, I might not have even played that song. I don t play that song every single night, Folds said in a recent phone interview, adding that he refused to sign a contract that might have barred the song. It just became such an issue at the school that I felt like I had to make a stand and make it clear that I m not dictated a set list by somebody who s got the checkbook.

So he sang it anyway.

An administrator responded afterward with a letter, getting personal by telling Folds he hopes his 8-year-old twins, Gracie and Louis, don t grow up to do the vulgar things described in the song.

It really took the thing way too far, Folds said.

When Folds recorded the Dr. Dre song as a B-side on an Internet-only EP, he never imagined the track would become a major download on iTunes and scare up censorship on tour.

It s not even a parody. The song is just a thing, Folds said of the recording. I was trying to play it with a straight face in the studio, just trying to get the words out without just blushing myself to death from laughing. And I said, This is really interesting. I mean, no, I mean, my father cusses like a sailor, it s kind of hard to shock. But there was something about the combination which I thought was shocking.

He was originally going to record Public Enemy s Can t Do Nuttin Fo Ya, Man! Instead, he tossed the song for Dr. Dre s at the last minute. He replaced Dre s original hip-hop beat for a slower piano melody.

Here is white man gravity music. Here is the music that you listen to the words because the music is just about anemic, and that s why you listen to the words. And here is really loud ghetto lyrics. Let s just see how they go together, he said. It makes a particular soup when you add those two ingredients. Its bizarre, but I think it speaks.

Though Folds stood by the single for the college shows, he s had to forfeit the song and some of his piano pounding ways for the symphony crowd. He toured with the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra in 2005, having since performed with various symphonies in the United States.

He ll perform with the Nashville Symphony Sept. 7, to open their concert season.

It s definitely a different animal, Folds said of performing with a formal orchestra.

With the orchestra, it has to be a little more scripted. So it has to be more planned and scripted by nature, so for that reason it probably is more focused on music, purely music. I think that makes it more important for me to have good manners and acknowledge that it s all happening at the moment.

Aside from some string arrangements on the new record, don t expect much orchestra inspiration to creep onto Folds latest album, because the tracks are too up-tempo, he said.

With clearly a diverse songbook, it s anyone s guess what side of Folds will show up on the new album.

Rockin the Suburbs in 2001 featured the goofy title song on the same disc as a ballad written for his son, Still Fighting It, that dares listeners not to well up with lines like Everybody knows, it hurts to grow up. His 2005 follow-up, Songs for Silverman, sticks with the slower side, while he collected a mishmash of Internet-only EPs including the hip-hop cover Folds refuses to censor into his most recent, SuperSunnySpeedGraphic The LP in 2006.

In between those studio albums, he built a softer side project in 2003 with rockers Ben Kweller and Ben Lee, dubbed The Bens, and worked with actor William Shatner for the quirky kid-friendly movie soundtrack of DreamWorks Over the Hedge in 2006.

Though Folds is keeping mum on his latest project, he admits he ll look to friendly faces when weighing future touring companions.

Chance kind of puts people together sometimes, Folds said. I ve met enough people doing what I do to realize that just because I like their music, doesn t mean I m going to like them or vice versa. Some of my favorite people to tour with personally, I don t like their music. I just like them. Separating the two is kind of difficult sometimes.

Folds will perform in Adrian College s Merillat Sport & Fitness Center s multi-purpose room. The concert will begin at 8:30 p.m. with the opening act Ben Lee. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. All Adrian College students receive one free ticket and additional tickets for them are $10. Tickets for the general public are $17. They can be purchased at www.adriantickets.com.

Contact Bridget Tharp at btharp@theblade.com or 419-724-6061.



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