Live show review: Ben Sollee at The Orange Peel

Ben Sollee opened his show at The Orange Peel a cappella (as he did at HATCH Asheville this past spring) with “Carrie Belle” before launching into full band mode with his trio. For Sollee’s new album, Inclusions, he’s touring with percussionist Jordan Ellis and fiddler/bassist/vocalist Phoebe Hunt (of The Belleville Outfit).

To describe what Sollee does in a few words is tricky: He’s a singer/songwriter who performs mainly on cello (though, on the recording of Inclusions, he plays pretty much every conceivable stringed instrument). That sounds like something softer, mellower and far more precious that what Sollee accomplishes. Opening act Thousands, the sweetly harmonizing guitar/vocal duo of Kristian Garrard and Luke Bergman, is more along those reflective/dreamy/floaty/pretty lines. They were excellent at what they did on stage, but as soon as Sollee opened his set, the energy in the room increased a hundred fold.

Launching into “Close To You,” Hunt aptly reproduced the huge, sweeping violin sound from the album, though it was apparent from early in the show that Sollee was not trying to recreate the studio version of Inclusions. Instead, he led is band through the song in various motions and themes, here: high and wild; here: turning on a dime to a soft finish. On “Hurting,” an intensely building number, expansive strings started on the low end of the scale with cello and violin providing a bottom end over which Sollee’s agile vocal could soar. At points Ellis’ drumming was jazzy, at other times a thick stomp. He played the entirety of “Electrified” — that band’s loudest song — pummeling complex rhythms from the cajone.

Prior to Inclusions, Sollee released Dear Companion with two other Kentucky-based musicians (Daniel Martin Moore and Jim James) to raise awareness about mountain top removal in home state. He touched on that mission, and on his current collaboration with Cliff bar to encourage bicycle riding for short trips, and performed a couple of songs with environmental themes. But Sollee’s “political” music is never preachy — “The Prettiest Tree on the Mountain” (from his debut solo album Learning To Bend) sounded more like the stuff of a film soundtrack (think Cat Stevens for Harold & Maude) than a protest march, and gave Hunt the opportunity to play a fierce solo that was equal parts Appalachian roots and Gypsy.

After a soulful version of “How To See The Sun Rise” (it starts with a cello solo, falls somewhere between James Taylor and Solomon Burke circa “Cry To Me” on the groove scale and results in Sollee sawing his cello with such a vengeance that the bow is ragged by the end), fiddler Casey Driessen sat in on “Bible Belt.” Check out the lyrics of the song if you want to know a little something personal about Sollee’s life. As far as on stage, the song was a combination of subtle rhythm and the swelling chords of the the violin duo, at times dissonant and then melting easily back into harmonies.

Sollee is a huge fan of collaboration — that’s one of the ideas behind Inclusions. It’s also why he sat in with Justin Townes Earle, My Morning Jacket and Low Anthem (in addition to his own set) at Bonnaroo. At the Orange Peel, he continued that trajectory, bringing local steel drum artist Jonathan Scales on stage for a gorgeous, ethereal version of “Panning For Gold.”

For as hard as he works and tours (prior to play the Orange Peel, Sollee stopped by two radio stations and the Moog factory and shot a video with Xpress‘s Dane Smith for “My Side of the Mountain”), on stage he makes it look like far more fun than work. Sollee is, undoubtedly, a virtuoso. He doesn’t so much play the cello as conjure sound from it. He hammers it, beats it, strokes it, strums it like a harp, slaps it like a bass. He seems to breathe with it and through it, pulling its notes from a source deep within his own creative well.

The same is true for his voice — if such a rich and soulful sound seems unlikely coming from this rather ordinary looking guy, Sollee seems unsatisfied to stop at the mere goodness of his singing and instead is constantly challenging his vocal into new directions. He’s uninhibited, unafraid. And, with his band, Sollee employs a similar approach. This is not just a group of musicians who can learn the songs and perform them adequately (even brilliantly) each night. Instead, they work as an organism building a sound together, constantly arranging and rearranging their singular contributions to see just what can happen with the sum of their parts.

The Orange Peel show finished on a high note. Surrounded by his trio and his guests, Sollee played a two-song encore. First, a funky, layered, smartly-reintrepeted cover of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” and then Sollee’s own “Only A Song” which, by the end, the entire audience was singing with him.

Photos by Cameron Yeager.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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