Concert review and set list: Cellist Ben Sollee (with Justin Paul Lewis) fights off stereotypes at the Old Rock House on Saturday, February 16
When most people think of the cello, they think of classical music or symphonies. Ben Sollee breaks those stereotypes and brings his instrument to a whole new level.
Show opener Justin Paul Lewis crept up onto the Old Rock House stage and began his solo-acoustic set without warning. Lewis’ take on the singer-songwriter genre was drastically different from what I’m used to hearing. He treats the guitar as a percussion instrument, producing shucking beats and heavily muted chords with his finger-style technique.
Lewis treats his vocals as another form of instrumentation, delivering his stories with a mumbled rhythm as if he were talking in his sleep and describing his dreams in real-time. The only comparison I can really draw is that he sounds like Tom Waits without the ravages of whisky and poor life choices warping his vocal cords. He spent the majority of his set hunched over his guitar, bobbing around and crooning while playing and whistling the horn lines his trumpeter, who was not with him at this show, usually added to his set.
Lewis’ motions were as mesmerizing as the songs themselves, almost a performance art piece in and of themselves. He got the crowd involved with the show by clapping the beat to a funky slow jam of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” before bringing Ben Sollee up on stage for a great performance of “Salt” from his most recent recording “Rinse, Repeat, Rewind.”
Ben Sollee was the next up, sharing the stage with drummer Jordon Ellis. I had not heard anything that he had performed before the show and opted to check him out based on a recommendation from singer-songwriter Erin McKeown, who occasionally raves about him on Twitter.
Sollee is a classically trained cellist that often forgoes the usual classical song structure to breathe new life into an old instrument. That was apparent from the first tune, which consisted of bowing and plucking a rhythm that would be equally at home on a New Order album. Every song seemed to shift in style from synth-pop to jazz to R&B and hip-hop grooves thrown in for good measure. Although there was a broad array of styles in play, the transitions were smooth as silk and nothing seemed out of place.
Over the course of the show, Sollee primarily kept to his cello with a change to octave mandolin for a couple of tracks halfway through the set. His vocals seemed to have a heavy lean toward the singing-storyteller style of Paul Simon, the words sung with a warm tenor that exuded wisdom beyond his years. When he was really getting into the groove Sollee would start to yelp and shout with joy, reminding me of the shouts that accompany “Better Git It in Your Soul” from the Charles Mingus album “Mingus Ah Um.”
There was also a strong jazz influence in the drumming of Jordon Ellis, who has more beats than Schrute Farms. He was running from hip-hop grooves to jazz riffs and filling the air with sounds that accented Sollee’s cello runs without stepping over or falling behind the beat.
The set ended with a fantastic cover of Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child,” with Ellis recreating the massive drum chorus and Sollee recreating everything from the guitar and horns to the backing vocals with his cello.
My only complaint about the evening was found with the crowd, not with the performers. I will never understand why someone will pay good money to go to a show and spend the entire evening ignoring the bands to shout and cackle with their friends, disturbing everyone else in attendance.
Much of Sollee’s set was found in the subtle nuances of his playing, most of which were lost under the din of a few patrons who didn’t have enough respect for the artists or other patrons to listen to the guy plying his trade on the stage.
I also want to call out the guy who was yelling “Play Skynyrd” and “Play Free Bird” during the set. That joke wasn’t funny at the first show it was yelled at, and puts you at the same level as the idiot who lobbed a glass bottle at Astronautilus at the Firebird last October. Sollee didn’t head back to the stage after his last song to play an encore, and I don’t blame him with the way some of the crowd was behaving.
All ranting aside, this was a fantastic show from a unique artist who is relatively unknown despite his talent. Right before playing his last number, Sollee asked us to spread the word if we liked what we heard, saying that it was more important to him than purchases at the merch table. Although this review doesn’t come close to paying in full for the performance I witnessed, I hope it will get at least a few folks to check him out and keep the wheel of musical creativity turning.
Ben Sollee set list:
Something, Somewhere, Sometime
How to See the Sunrise (Teach Me)
Prettiest Tree on the Mountain
Built for This
The Obvious Child (Paul Simon cover)