"It was like a space ship landing in a shopping mall," says Ben Folds, describing how his band, Ben Folds Five, fitted into the musical landscape of their home town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Up until 1995, Chapel Hill had been known for a cluster of noise-mongering bands, but this year Ben Folds Five broke through and bent the rules in three ways. They had sophisticated tunes, they had a hit record in Britain, and - almost an offence in rock music - no guitarist. All they had was a bassist (Robert Sledge), a drummer (Darren Jessee) and Ben Folds himself laying down piano riffs that tap dance around the brain on songs like "Underground".
Ben Folds is on the phone from Germany. Though currently preoccupied with figuring out the native sense of humour ("When I tell a joke on stage, the crowd just stare at me"), thoughts of the band's recently completed album are not far from his mind. He claims that the musicianship leaves a lot to be desired in places, but sloppy is something you could never describe them as. Ben's tunes are hummable corkers, well-developed pop that owes its twinklesome originality not to being a guitar-free zone, but to a stage musical influence. Ben was in a musical once and it's clear he hasn't left his interest behind.
"Most of the time when pop musicians delve into that world they mess up because they have no respect for the genre, or are intimidated. Madonna has a lot of confidence, so maybe she pulled Evita off.
"I think Broadway needs what's in pop music, and pop could use some theatre... Broadway could use some substance, some reality, where people sing about everyday harsh realities."
Ben Folds, like his band, is blessedly playful and serious all at once. As their show at the Reading Festival proved, a geezer bashing away with a piano can be just as cool as one throttling a guitar.
EYE ON THE NEW
Tony Rich seemed unmovable from the Top 10 earlier this year with his debut single '"Nobody Knows". Time will tell whether the lush-voiced soulster will sustain his success, but it can't do him harm to follow up support dates with Tina Turner with this headline show. "Leavin" is the name of his new single, which sees him plunge into gospel territory.
Tony Rich, Shepherds Bush Empire, 24 Nov