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Rockin the Stepan

Marty Schroeder | Thursday, November 9, 2006

Ben Folds proves pop music can still be good. In the mid-’90s, he, Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse formed the band Ben Folds Five. With no guitars to be seen anywhere, this band took off with catchy pop songs and entered the scene just as the “nerd rock” movement was about to break it big in the mainstream.

Sadly or no, Ben Folds Five dissolved in 2000 but Folds launched a solo career and is at the top of his game. The music that made him famous with the Five is now keeping him famous on his own. Tonight, he will play some of his “punk rock for wimps,” from his time with Ben Folds Five and his solo career, to a sold-out crowd at the Stepan Center.

Folds was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The mid-80s were not the kindest to Folds as he searched across the country – and Europe – for a place to let his muse come forth and blossom. In the era of hair bands, Folds’ meld of pop, punk and pianos was not what band managers and record executives wanted to record and sell.

Enter bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jesse as Folds made his way back to his home state of North Carolina, ending up in Chapel Hill. They cut an indie self-titled debut with Passenger Records and found themselves suddenly popular. With that, the bidding wars for this up and coming band began. Finally signing with Sony, their sophomore album – which many consider to be their best – materialized in the form of “Whatever and Ever Amen.” With hits such as the exciting “Kate” and the melodic and cathartic “Brick,” it seemed the public was finally ready for a rock band whose main instrument was a piano, not a guitar.

Two years later saw “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Reinhold Messner.” Although not as popular as the preceding album, it was still a strong showcase of the interesting and unique sound Ben Folds Five had come to call their own. A creative force in the cesspool of uncreative late ’90s pop, Folds brought in a horn section on “Don’t Change Your Plans,” talked about growing up in the catchy “Army” and let his muse get a little silly with “Your Redneck Past.” Through all three albums, Folds remained the creative force and namesake of this most unique pop band.

However, Ben Folds Five was destined for a dissolution in 2000 after releasing only three, yet all top-notch, albums. Folds, never one to stop making some of the best power pop ever heard, worked for a year after the split and released the solo “Rockin’ the Suburbs” to high critical acclaim. Proving himself a master musician, he played most if not all the instruments used in the album. “Annie Waits,” “Rockin’ the Suburbs” and “Zak and Sara” are prime examples of the power pop fans have come to know and love, while the introspective “Fred Jones, Pt. 2” and “The Luckiest” bring the album back down to earth and infuse it with a heart that counters the fun of other songs. This album is not as groundbreaking as “Forever and Ever Amen,” but then again, fans know what to expect from Folds, and “Rockin’ the Suburbs” is Folds at his best – which is definitely laudable.

Folds has toured all around the world and has come to define power pop for the generation that grew up, and is still growing up, with him. Creating music that is catchy, fun and full of heart all at the same time, he is a singular figure in the world of popular music. He may be famous, but that hasn’t gone to his head and he continues to produce music that is artistic and fun. Folds is popular because he makes good music people can identify with. He doesn’t need powerful producers to make his music – all he needs is his muse.