When I first heard Ben Sollee, it was on a special radio set recorded on YouTube almost a year ago for his upcoming (now released) album, Learning To Bend. His voice was airy, innocent and calming. I immediately fell in love with his string work — his way of incorporating cellos, violins and stand-up bass into his voice, and the way they complemented each other was so settling. It was something to write to, to hum while you skipped down the street, the soundtrack to a family with a newborn baby. Well, it was the soundtrack to a family with a newborn baby. Ben Sollee and wife Caitlyn gave birth to his son, a large influence on so much of his songwriting, and you can tell by the lyrics.
It’s the feeling of an artist who was a mess and struggling with a life that only seemed to elude him and his music for so long, and once he knew he was going to be a father, it followed into his voice. A certain understanding of life and peace washes over his music, and through your speakers.
It was 9-11, and we sat patiently in our seats at the Memorial Hall (on Cameron Avenue) in Chapel Hill, though eager, to see Ben Sollee (www.myspace.com/bensollee). This SonaBLAST recording artist has captured the hearts of all age groups across the board with his acoustic/ strings/folk music on life, love and the pursuit of happiness. As my favorite new artist of summer 2008, I made sure to make it to this show. Sollee is from Louisville, Ky., but travels with a backing band, the Sparrow Quartet, led by Abigail Washburn (www.abigailwashburn.com), who is bilingual (she sometimes sings in Chinese, and performed at the Beijing Olympics).
The Sparrow Quartet opened with Bela Fleck (www.belafleck.com), a bluegrass musician from New York City. He wore a colorful shirt and held his banjo like a soldier holds his gun — the most prized possession — against his chest. Plucking strings and singing under his breath, he was later joined in by the quartet for a full stage ensemble.
Though I didn’t seem to follow his particular solo work, or find it all that addicting live, when the band was added into the mix, it was impossible not to find myself lost in the music. There were so many instruments and talent, and not enough room on the stage.
Later, the Sparrow Quartet broke out their instruments, which seemed to take a few extra minutes than most — but it was completely understandable for this set. Appalachian music and Chinese lyrics filled the room with confusion at first, and then a certain level of gratitude and understanding of how truly amazing it was to experience something like that. Talent and intelligence, with passion and art — these all shone brightly through her voice, and provided the perfect melody between her and Ben Sollee. Sollee’s cello skills are unbelievable.
One just sits and watches him play, fretless and unphased, and must wonder how so much talent is possessed in but a single human. His fingers jump and fall up and down the neck of his instrument like a lover’s touch — both delicate and strong. Making facial expressions and moving his head along with notes show it’s obvious he is playing along with his vocal chords to keep pitch of the strings.
Jazz and bluegrass might be popular genres, but live they don’t always flow like they did on Thursday. Each member really had an individual performance to witness, causing me to desire a separate concert from each of them — and a musical interpretation of their life stories. One of these solo shows is coming up Nov. 7 at the Nightlite in Chapel Hill (ww.myspace.com/ nightlitebar), as Ben Sollee (www.bensollee.com) will be touring through on his own for the late autumn. Check it out.