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Ben Folds has new material 'U'

April 6, 2004

It just didn't seem right.

Traveling among college campuses, planning to play gymnasiums with raised basketball hoops, the stage at the acoustically astounding Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor on Saturday night simply wasn't what Ben Folds was expecting.

"There must be some mistake," Folds told The State News during a phone interview. "We specifically requested gymnasiums."

Another shock to his gym-ready system will come tonight when he plays Wharton Center's Great Hall as one of the piano rocker's first stops on his current college campus tour.

This isn't a proper tour, Folds says, although it includes 15 dates around the country.

It's a warm-up for the "real" tour this summer, which will include Guster and Rufus Wainwright. It's a chance for him to get out of the studio, where he has been diligently writing and recording his new album, planned for a release later this year.

And it's an opportunity to make the audience his guinea pig.

"It's good for me to see if they're really songs," he told the Ann Arbor audience, explaining some of the new material he played, including a tribute to Elliott Smith and a song ditching the piano for a bass guitar. "Now, let me concentrate, or I'll forget the words."

Folds released a series of EPs last year, each with five songs, putting new material in rotation without the rigors of promoting an album. He canceled a third EP, to be titled "Super D", after he decided to add those tracks to the full-length release.

But somewhere between college campuses, he might have changed his mind.

"I either do something goofy or I do something serious," he said. "I'm thinking of chucking all the goofy stuff on the EP and making this a serious album.

"I'm allowing myself to be slow and indecisive right now. Usually, I just go for it and do it and chuck it out there. This time, I find myself sitting on it, adding to it, thinking about it."

He says this tour probably represents "the end of a phase" and will lead to something different. Maybe he'll tour with a band, he said, or add organs and other instruments to the show. He expects to play songs with Wainwright and Guster this summer, rather than playing entirely as separate acts. He's finishing songs that have been in the works for years and is figuring out what that last verse should be.

But for now, it's the open road and a mixed-up set list.

He's pulling out old favorites from his days with Ben Folds Five - "Army", "Best Imitation of Myself", "Song for the Dumped" and radio-hit "Brick" - but also relying on solo material, such as "Not the Same", "All You Can Eat" and "There's Always Someone Cooler Than You."

Saturday's show produced a salsa version of "Rock This Bitch" better than any Casio keyboard ever could produce, and a solid imitation of shrieking vocals from The Darkness' "Get Your Hands Off My Woman." The line, "I think she smokes pot" from the song "Kate" stirred a mighty reaction from the University of Michigan crowd, fresh from Hash Bash festivities.

Folds said he'll try to play different, new material in East Lansing, putting together a fresh set between watching G.I. Joe knock-offs, staring at the white lines on the expressway and growing his tour mustache.

"These are the first days of the tour - I'm freaking out," Folds said, admitting that the tour's first night was "hopeless" for remembering lyrics. "I'm getting my sea legs back. I had to remember how to play."


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