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Originally published April 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 25, 2008 at 6:13 PM

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Ben Folds: raucous rock piano and wry introspection

Musician Ben Folds brings his wry poignancy to Tacoma on Sunday.

Special to The Seattle Times

Concert preview

Ben Folds

The musician performs at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at University of Puget Sound-Fieldhouse, North 11th and Union, Tacoma; $25 (tickets, 206-628-0888; information, 253-879-3419).

The first time I heard Ben Folds, he just about ruined my evening. I'd just stopped at the liquor store to buy libations for a colleague's sendoff when the mournful opening piano line of "Brick" interrupted the local alternarock station's normal lineup of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.

By the time I made it to the party, I had to stay in the car, head on the steering wheel, heart aching as Folds finished the song, which is about taking his high-school girlfriend to get an abortion:

Driving back to her apartment, for the moment we're alone. She's alone, I'm alone, and now I know it — she's a brick and I'm drowning slowly.

It took me some time to get it together. When I did, it was quite awhile before I was able to raise a glass and laugh.

So imagine my surprise when I picked up "Whatever and Ever Amen" the next day. This time, Folds and his (then) bandmates Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge had me banging my steering wheel like a piano and laughing my head off at tunes that were funny, wry and raucous.

Give me my money back, give me my money back you b___. I want my money back — and don't forget, to give me back my black T-shirt! — "Song for the Dumped."

It was piano rock of the type I hadn't heard since my first concert in 1975: Elton John on his "Yellow Brick Road" tour.

So it has been with Folds during his 13-year recording career, which spans three studio albums with Jessee and Sledge as Ben Folds Five and five solo albums, with another due out this fall. Sometimes funny, sometimes raucous, sometimes cynical, sometimes poignant, nearly always wry — with the cynicism of "Whatever and Ever Amen" more recently sweetened by the pleasures of raising twins. And always with hooky piano grooves that'll send you to your keyboard, hoping you can figure out how to play at least a lame version.

In between Folds-fronted albums, he has liberally sprinkled in amusing side projects, EPs and mind-bending covers. His 1998 "Fear of Pop" side project featured a hilarious spoken-word song by William Shatner that led to Folds producing, arranging and co-writing much of Shatner's 2004 "Has Been." On its most memorable track, Shatner declares, "I want to live like the common people."

Folds has popped up on several soundtracks, from kid movies — "Over the Hedge" and "Hoodwinked" — to the adult dramas "I Am Sam" and "Driving Lessons." He's got a piano cameo on Weird Al Yankovic's 2003 "Poodle Hat." More recently, he transposed a profanity-loaded rap by Dr. Dre onto a classic Folds mid-tempo ballad; it's now his third-most downloaded song on iTunes.

I haven't seen Folds in concert since 1999, when I got to see Ben Folds Five nearly every night for two weeks. I was chronicling his opening act, Folds' good friends Fleming McWilliams and John Mark Painter, just sure they were going to be household names and that I'd write the book. (Oh well.) From D.C. to New Hampshire, we schlepped from college to college, always met by rabid fans for whom Folds had written the soundtrack of their lives.

The trio capped that leg of the tour with a mind-blowing, piano-stool-smashing conclusion at New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom, an aptly named venue for a Ben Folds Five concert. I still count it among the two most fun and memorable weeks of my life.

Cynthia Mitchell is a journalism professor at Central Washington University. She worked for 14 years as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Wall Street Journal.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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