Kentucky Lasagne, Social Awareness, and a Master's Clinic on the Cello: Ben Sollee

Article Contributed by Gina | Published on Friday, May 13, 2011

I think it goes without saying that music, and experiencing a wide variety of it, is an important part of how I rate the quality of my life.  There have been a number of artists and bands over the years that have caught my attention and captivation.. In each instance, the music was the beginning and the end of why I came to be enthralled with their work.. It’s gotta be better than what’s on the radio.. You know?  Make it, musically — worth MY time.. And my time, is valuable..

Ben Sollee more than meets my definition of ‘worth my time.’  I’ve had the pleasure of catching him in performance three times now.. But this last occasion, was my first chance to see an entire show of just his music alone.. Simply put, it was one of the best nights of music I’ve experienced in quite a long time.. If you like music to both have the power to ‘swing’ rhythmically – AND – make you think and feel, you need to give Ben Sollee’s latest release ‘Inclusions,’ a listen.

Sollee is a cello player from Kentucky who combines classical training, along with elements of soul, R and B, and what Sollee has described as ‘Modern Folk…’  I’m not even sure if I’ve included all the various elements I hear when I listen to his work.  There are so many layers to his sound, and songwriting, as well as his stellar singing voice.

The 27 year old comes from a musician’s family.  Sollee’s father was a working musician in a regional R and B band.. It’s very easy to see from where the cellist’s deep appreciation of R and B and soul originate.  Sollee’s grandfather would play folk and bluegrass music with him, as well.  The musical results aren’t all that surprising on paper, yet – music doesn’t ‘live’ on paper, does it?  However, it’s valuable to note that all three genres are music ‘of the people,’ and are typically story-based lyrical compositions.

Yet in the brilliant hands of Sollee and his fellow musicians on this night, (fiddler Phoebe Hunt and percussionist Jordan Ellis,) such a Kentucky lasagne of sound -- takes on an entirely new energy.’  Perhaps that’s the ‘modern’ part of Modern Folk?  The best I can state it, is that it relates to ‘now,’ in ways that classic soul and original folk do not.. Yet it’s utterly timeless in delivery of that more modern message.

As I mentioned earlier, Sollee has performed in Charlottesville, at least three times before.  First with the gifted Abigail Washburn and The Sparrow Quartet, and later – with Daniel Martin Moore, in support of their release ‘Dear Companion,’ where all artist proceeds were donated to help spread awareness in hopes of ending the highly destructive coal mining method of ‘mountaintop removal,’ in Appalachia.

Sollee briefly explained his concerns about the coal mining method.

Ben Sollee

‘Mountaintop removal involves literally blowing the top off of the mountain, extracting the coal – and then piling the earth back on, and replanting.  Such a practice wrecks total havoc with the ecosystem, and ultimately the way of life for the people of Appalachia,’  Sollee said.

There is plenty of research to support his opinion, yet the practice continues.  Sollee was at a loss to explain why.  He added, ‘You wouldn’t see this happening in The Sierras or The Rockies.. Yet it’s been happening here [Appalachia,] and for now – it’s legal.’

Sollee is a passionate advocate for the people of Appalachia, yet knows where to draw the line between raising awareness and interrupting the music of a live performance.

In a recent interview, Sollee said he preferred ‘to create platforms for the informed activists to spread the word.’  And true to form, representatives were at this venue to help educate about the mining destruction taking place in Appalachia as well as local representatives advocating the use of bikes as transportation.

Bicycle transportation is a theme in Sollee’s career.  Indeed he traveled by bike, on his last tour.. Yes, he pulled the cello.  But his reasoning for doing so might surprise you.  It wasn’t to push any ‘green’ agenda.  Not that the musician doesn’t appreciate the added benefit to the ozone layer from his decision to not use a vehicle to tour with, last year.

Sollee described his reasoning as one of hoping to re-humanize the process of touring.  ‘On tour, reality is planes, and buses, and quickly getting from point a to point b.. When we toured by bike, we came to feel more connected  to each performance, and each place we played.’

Given that this musician’s music is ‘of the people,’ a desire to stay close to them, makes a great deal of sense.  ‘Smart’ is a word I’ve tossed around for several days now, as I’ve been thinking about this show, in preparation to write.  But I don’t want to give you the wrong idea.  Sollee’s music is intelligent, yet not at all snobbish.  It swings, rocks, and even occasionally bounces with funk.

The musician practically assaults his cello, playing percussively with either his bow, or hands.. I didn’t know a cello could MAKE some of the sounds he creates.. Sollee’s live performances are better than his recordings, and his recordings are pretty amazing.. The tour continues thru the summer, although they aren't on bikes this time.. I overwhelmingly suggest you look for a show close to you and try to get tickets.  And sit up close.. You won’t regret it.