For months now, music industry conventional wisdom has pegged North Carolina pop trio Ben Folds Five as the latest indie act to turn mainstream success, and it's an ascension that seems likelier every day.
When they last played Chicago in October, it was to a tiny and largely indifferent crowd; three months later, their first local headlining gig did turnaway business at Lounge Ax. It's an insurgency fueled almost solely by Ben Folds Five's growing reputation as a formidable live act, a reputation richly deserved, since lead singer/pianist Ben Folds cuts quite a rug.
Folds can wrest more feeling, as well as more noise, from a piano than anyone since Tori Amos, though it's doubtful that Amos, unlike Folds, has ever played the piano with her feet. Folds attacks the piano with a zeal that would embarrass Jerry Lee Lewis, throwing himself on top of it, slamming away at it without mercy, even riding it like a horse.
To see an indie rock and roller unafraid of spectacle, unafraid, perhaps even eager, to look goofy, is a rare thing, even if his Lounge Ax show didn't find a strangely subdued Folds in typical high dudgeon.
Using only a piano, bass and drums, his trio moved easily from rock to boogie woogie, from lounge to piano punk, and even, with a brief Scott Joplin cover, ragtime. A tendency toward prolonged instrumental fadeouts and, horrifyingly,m a brief drum solo were the evening's only indulgences, as Folds, equal parts lounge lizard, ringmaster and beloved entertainer, kept things moving at a brisk clip.
Folds bears an unmistakable vocal resemblance to Freddie Mercury and a melodic resemblance to Billy Joel, qualities that might have stood him in better stead in the piano pop-infatuated '70's than they do now. It wasn't hard to read more irony into the band's encore rendition of the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," the song that sounded the death knell for, among other things, Folds' brand of '70's pop, than they might have intended. Folds is the only indie rocker to wear his fondness for Carole King like a badge of honor.
Despite a prototypically postpunk sense of irony and an often lacerating wit, Folds' fondness for melody and sentiment have made him vaguely suspect in indie circles, Satruday night's SRO crowd notwithstanding. The trio recently signed a reportedly lucrative contract with a major label; mainstream rock and roll consumers will almost certainly be kinder.
Allison Stewart (special to the Tribune)