Pop Live: Keys to your heart

The piano stool rules in Ben Folds' world, where Billy Joel jams with Nirvana. Ben Thompson sees his band play up the latest angle on the hip-to-be-square conundrum

"It would probably be better not to go outside," warns Ben Folds Five's tour manager, "you might get mobbed". Speaking as a representative of a North Carolina trio whose main selling point is that there has always been a large grand piano element in their music, and whose eponymous frontman looks like he might have had sand kicked in his face by Richard Dreyfuss in American Graffiti, this particular rock-hardened road warrior might be suspected of third degree marble-loss. But he turns out to have a point.

Barely has Ben Folds poked his nose out of Camden Dingwalls' front door - three hours before showtime on a freezing Monday night - before he's had the top of his head kissed by an emotional drunk and been surrounded by a gang of strange young women in pin-striped suits. "If you watch a video of your appearance on Later, you can see me standing in the crowd," the ring-leader maintains disturbingly, "and when you start playing, the camera focusses in on me going `Wow'". Folds suppresses his natural survival instinct and chats politely, observing cryptically afterwards that he "doesn't want to piss off the Music God".

The Music God works in mysterious ways, but there's no doubt he's been smiling on Ben Folds Five for the past six months or so. When they first came to Britain in the spring of this year, it was more or less as a novelty act. One hit single (the sublimely sarcastic anti-alternative piano anthem "Underground"), an enduring debut album - the unimaginatively-titled Ben Folds Five (Caroline) - and a shiny new record deal with Michael Jackson- friendly Epic later, they are poised on the brink of a major breakthough. "We always knew we'd have to attain a certain level of success," Folds insists, "otherwise the piano was going to get repossessed."

From the initial decision to saddle themselves with crippling piano-related debts, to later attempts to cover The Buggles' "Video Killed The Radio Star", Ben Folds Five's has been a triumph of self-inflicted adversity. Thinking big from the off had its advantages though. "If even getting your instrument to a show is ridiculously difficult", Folds observes, "do you think you're going to make any compromises once you get there?" The idea of founding what he smilingly describes as a "piano, bass and drums power-trio" was inspired by the simple fact that it had "never really been done before". Elton John toured with that line-up for a year or two apparently, but never bothered recording it.

Elton John is not the only deeply unfashionable name that Folds is happy to drop. Randy Newman and even (yikes) Billy Joel trip just as easily from Ben's tongue as they do from the pens of those who have found themselves unhappily immune to his band's melodic allure. It comes as something of a surprise, then, to find that the key inspirational driving force behind Ben Folds Five's sound was actually Nirvana. "They were great," Folds enthuses, "it was like having the Who around again".

It turns out that the monolithic magnificence of the Kurt Cobain/Butch Vig guitar sound left the next generation with just three options: dismantle it (Pavement, Sebadoh, anyone who has ever been termed "post-rock"), copy it (mentioning no names, Bush), or try something else altogether. And this is where Ben Folds Five came in.

"Logically I know we're not doing anything terribly new," Folds admits. "We might have left the guitar out, but we're substituting other sounds: the function's still there... If a band is delusionally excited about what they're doing, everyone else will be too". He grins. "It becomes almost a spiritual thing at that point."

A couple of hours later, watching the gleeful act of communal celebration that is a Ben Folds Five live show, it is impossible not to agree. Have such a high proportion of a Monday night crowd ever sung along so lustily to so many tartly precocious songs? (Sample lyric: "I tried to tell you, it took a little bit too long - now your phone is disconnected and your shit's out on the lawn".) It seems unlikely. Folds and his intuitively sympathetic cohorts Robert Sledge (bass) and Darren Jesse (drums) refuse to let their virtuosity stand in the way of everyone else's good time. Even the disturbing sight of someone playing air piano cannot spoil the mood.

Ben Folds Five play Glasgow King Tuts, tonight; Sheffield Leadmill, Sat; Birmingham Foundry, Sun; London Astoria 2, Tues.

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