Beat in his Bones: Ben Sollee’s Red Room Show

Photo by Chris Witzke

by Lily Lyons

When I first heard Ben Sollee, I was a young violinist who felt constrained by all the classical concertos and solo Bach I was playing. Listening to Ben’s fiercely rhythmic, genre-bending cello helped me rekindle my excitement about being a string player, and eventually propelled me towards applying to Berklee. As both Ben and I are from Kentucky, I had heard him live before, but not since I came to Boston. I wondered if I would find his singing cello combination as impressive as I did when I was 14, now that I am learning how to fiddle and writing songs myself. It turns out his ability to groove is just as wild and ferocious as it was 8 years ago.

I arrived at the Red Room as Ben’s opening act, Gracie and Rachel, was beginning to play. An orchestral pop duo featuring violin, piano, and vocals, Gracie and Rachel were wide-eyed, sonically sparse, and intense in their stage presence. The style of their music lay somewhere between Regina Spektor and the Lumineers, enlivened by the technical mastery that classical training provides. I was impressed with their delivery, but I wished for more contrast between songs to match the strength of their ambient, emotionally resonant playing.

Photo by Chris Witzke

Photo by Chris Witzke

When Ben took the stage with his drummer and album collaborator Jordon Ellis, the room palpably warmed and everyone pressed up towards the stage. The first song of the set began with muted cello harmonics, slowly escalating until Ben couldn’t help but burst into a crunchy, toe-tapping beat. With my view temporarily blocked by the audience, it took me a moment to remember what instrument I was hearing. Ben played the cello like it contained a complete rhythm section within its wooden body, smoothly looping riffs, altering tone colors, and grounding himself in percussiveness.

A few minutes into the performance, Ben and Jordon shifted to a frenetic groove that reminded me of The Postal Service, but with chords that felt distinctly Americana and plagal. Such unlikely combinations mixed like spices on my tongue and recurred throughout the show, keeping my ears guessing. Ben gradually revealed to the audience that he had been sneaking across genre lines since he was a little kid. In a series of almost tale tales that flowed like maple syrup, he told  us of learning fiddle tunes from his grandfather, who called the cello a “bull fiddle.” Not satisfied with the classical music he was learning, or the R&B bumping in his house, he slipped into All-State jazz band by pretending to be a bassist in a blind audition.

Photo by Chris Witzke

Photo by Chris Witzke

Ben’s curious spirit was not only evident in his stories and eclectic stylistic influences. As a songwriter, he looks around and beyond his personal life for inspiration, and tonight was no exception. One song he played, “The Long Lavender Line,” was prompted by the small experience of a glitchy GPS, but went beyond amusement to meditate on the impact of technology. Another, “Cajun Navy,” celebrated the bravery of the volunteers during the recent floods in Louisiana, a story that didn’t receive proper coverage in the media.

Ben’s choice to write about tangible things, and celebrate positivity and individual activism made it clear that he was aware of the impact music can have on society when written thoughtfully.

As Ben began a slow 6/8 blues to underpin one of his better known tunes, “How to See the Sun Rise,” I zoomed out from my reflections on music and social change to focus on appreciating the juiciness of the spaces he left between notes. His simplest gestures were infused with kinetic, crackling energy. Even when he was just plucking quarter notes, his playing felt groovy. His comfort with the songs was such that he could weave in and out of the basic beat, adding and subtracting nuance when it felt organic. Jordon’s ability to listen to and match Ben made it seem like they were arms of the same body, neurons firing and internal metronomes pulsing in sync. Watching them, I began to think about the importance of making music with intention. Whether playing backbeats or writing lyrics, intention is what really makes Ben stand out as a musician. He doesn’t just do—he asks why, and puts all of himself into it, creating songs that groove hard and carry meaning.

ARE YOU AS EXCITED ABOUT BEN SOLLEE’S GROOVING, SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS MUSIC AS WE ARE? LET US KNOW ABOUT IT IN THE COMMENTS!