Luckily, Ben wised up in 2000 and dropped the "Five," becoming a solo artist for the second time. Since he founded the band in Chapel Hill in 1994 with two studio musicians, Folds has always been the brains behind the operation. Not to say his former band mates weren't talented guys, but without the piano man, they'd probably be playing in Superchunk. The band released a radio single in 1996, "Underground," but blew up huge with "Brick," a single from their second album, which bears the totally '90s title, Whatever and Ever Amen.
"Brick" was a rarity on alt-rock radio for two reasons; one, it featured a piano as the main instrument, and two, it was about abortion, not usually the topic of pop songs. The lyrics explored Folds' reaction to his high school girlfriend terminating a pregnancy, and were equal parts commendably honest and totally frustrating. Eleven years and one stint of Planned Parenthood employment later, I still have a visceral reaction to the tune. She might be a brick, and you might be drowning slowly, but how do you think she feels? Still, given the girl-blaming nature of many of today's big emo hits, the song feels nuanced in retrospect.
Folds continued to receive critical praise, although he never had another hit. In 2000, he and his band mates parted ways and he kept doing the same thing he'd done before: crafting catchy piano tracks. He released Rockin' the Suburbs, toured with Ben Kweller and Ben Lee, and spent time opening for Rufus Wainwright. He also performed with several orchestras, including the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in March 2005 and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in November 2005. Most recently, he sparked a riot at a Boston Pops concert, where a fistfight broke out between two members of the normally sedate crowd.
Luckily, Folds' shows aren't usually that punk rock. People have described them as "charismatic, yet calm," and Folds is often chatty and engaging on-stage. He tends to omit his hits and focus on the newer material, so if you're dying to hear "Brick" one more time and relive some high school memories, save your money. He does, however, do a neat trick where he asks for audience input regarding the tempo of the song "Rock This Bitch" -- he claims to have performed 50 versions of the tune, including a polka variation. A few months ago, he also performed a version that described him visiting a fast-food joint and becoming violently ill, proof that even if one grows as an artist, one don't necessarily have to grow up.
Ben Folds with John Mayer at the Gorge on Saturday, June 2 at 7 pm. $36 - $54. Visit www.ticketmaster.com.