Sunday, August 5, 2012
One Longfellow Square, Portland, Maine
I happened upon Ben Sollee in June of 2011 when I was visiting friends near Washington DC. My friend Clare knew I’d appreciate going to see a show, so she suggested we catch one at Iota in Arlington, Virginia—a teeny, intimate venue. Ben Sollee just happened to be the headliner the night we were out, and boy, what a treat it was to stumble upon him! Ben plays beautiful cello, and his songs are full of interesting syncopation and powerful lyrics. I especially appreciated his interest in and passion for the environment and the ability of the arts to build community.
Fast forward just over a year—Ben Sollee was the darling of this year’s Newport Folk Festival. He played his own set (which I skipped because I knew I’d be seeing him the following week at the very intimate One Longfellow Square), recorded in the Paste Ruins (which I got to watch), and guest starred in so many sets that I called him the “Waldo” of the NFF. He was on a “Ditch the Van” bike tour—meaning that he literally rode a bicycle with his cello following on a trailer from Kentucky all the way to Newport, Rhode Island. The NFF provided buses for concertgoers to take from the parking lots to the stages, and my bus nearly side swiped Ben on the entry road. It was kind of hard not to notice that we almost took out a guy carting a cello! Glad we missed him!
My friend Bartlett was going to join me for Ben, but he recently became a landlord and his tenant had a plumbing issue. I texted him back joking that “s%*t happens” (I thought that was very clever), and I nestled into a seat in the third row center to catch Ben up close and personal. I was pumped. I chatted with the folks around me (shocking, I know) and found out that the woman sitting beside me had run the Beach to Beacon 10K the day before with her 83 year old mom who finished first in her age group! 83?! Impressive!
Lancaster, PA native Dietrich Strause opened the show, and I thought his folky songs were quite compatible with Ben’s sound. His songs were simple and pretty and I liked his finger picking. He admitted that he felt a bit guilty about driving up from Boston (his home base) and joked that Mainers must breathe a big sigh of relief when all of those cars he saw crowding the southbound lanes on the highway leave every Sunday night. I especially liked his songs “Susquehanna” and “Annie Dear.” Here’s a video of Dietrich’s interpretation of the David and Goliath story—“Like a Rock”—that includes some very vociferous ducks. Really. His last song, “Lemonade Springs,” has a great line—“A yellowstone child just looking for a wild love/running from the life she was lost in.” He told us the song was a cautionary tale and told us the real story (I Googled it) of a billionaire in Australia who is having a replica of the Titanic built with plans to launch it on the exact day it originally set sail on. He warned us, “no matter how cheap the tickets are—don’t go.”
Ben Sollee took the stage after a short break to a full room of admirers. I barely know how to explain his interesting and captivating sound except to say it’s great. He plays cello and has a beautiful voice. His music is kind of folky with bluegrass influence. He opened with “A Few Honest Words,” which has lyrics I like—“Love is a bitter fruit/We’ve learned to eat/But we still don’t know, oh, where it grows.” He played one of my favorites of his tunes, “Something, Somewhere, Sometime” next and the crowd was clearly happy to hear it, too. Jordan Ellis joined Ben for his set and played beautiful percussion. He had to be clever and creative about what tools to use, because he was on a bicycle carrying his gear, too. He plays a mean cajon drum. They’d ridden about 60 miles that day to make it to the show, in fact. Wow. Ben talked about the “Ditch the Van” bike tour and said it forces them to slow down and take everything in and makes them more present in the communities they’re playing in. Here’s Ben talking about touring by bicycle on CNN.
I was really happy to hear “Hurting” with it’s refrain, “it’s gonna be alright.” I think that may be my favorite song on Ben’s Inclusions album. Check out Ben’s Tiny Desk Concert on NPR that opens with “Hurting” and includes “Captivity,” “The Globe,” and “Inclusions.” “How to See the Sun Rise” was a lovely gospel-infused tune that made me feel a little like I was in church rocking out with a powerful house band. Ben clearly loves Kentucky and is interested in the history of Appalachia. He introduced “Prettiest Tree on the Mountain” with a cute story about how he learned there’s such a thing as a leader tree that changes color first in fall and tells the other trees, “yo—it’s time to change. Which is what she said to me.” So, I guess the song is about a broken heart. He also said it’s the only song he’s ever not written—that it just poured out of him.
Ben played a song that laments the practice of mountaintop-removal coal mining. This issue was the catalyst for Dear Companion that Ben recorded with fellow Kentucky boy Daniel Martin Moore in 2010. The album was produced by fellow Kentuckian Jim James of My Morning Jacket. Ben and Jordan wrapped their set with “Electrified” which displays the interesting syncopated rhythms of a lot of Ben’s songs, and finished with a beautiful classical piece.
We asked for an encore and Ben and Jordan played five more songs including Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child” and some fiddle tunes Ben learned from his grandfather Elvis Henry Cornelius. He told us that riding his bicycle reminds him of the cadence of those fiddle songs and he hears them when he rides. They tried to leave the stage after FIVE more songs, but we were so appreciative (and rowdy) that Ben and Jordan came back for one final song, “Built for This.” Ben chatted with audience members after the show and is so much an ordinary guy for being such an incredibly talented musician. If you haven’t seen him live yet, you are really missing out.