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.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?