French press coffee, hot tea, fresh baked cookies, and Ben Sollee and his cello all at The Cat in the Cream! Everything about this evening was perfect—great company and great conversation during the trek to Oberlin and over a delicious dinner at Weia Teia prior to the show at the cozy Cat in the Cream Oberlin College coffee house. All of this topped off with the amazing and beautiful music from Ben Sollee. The night exuded warmth at every turn.
When we arrived at the coffee house admittedly a tad late (lost in the time-warp of the food banquet), we were greeted by Cat in the Cream staff who were regretful to inform a group of about 20 of us that the show was at capacity and we could not enter. We had traveled over an hour to the show (unfortunately not by bike as Ben Sollee strongly advocates) so I’m sure our faces reflected the disappointment, as did everyone else’s. But we were met with a compromise that we could watch from the back hallway if no one entered when they opened the double doors for us. We followed down the hall, and when the doors were opened it revealed a room full of people sitting in every available spot on the floor, in chairs, and all along the back wall, as opener Luke Reynolds (also Ben Sollee band-mate/guitarist) played and warmed up the audience. We spilled out into the hallway in the same fashion, creating an ocean of eyes and ears eager for the music, as more people continued to arrive and join us.
A quick break and then Sollee and drummer Jordon Ellis joined Reynolds on stage. Ady and I had seen Sollee performing with others on various stages in various configurations at this year’s Newport Folk Festival (here’s one such appearance with Joe Fletcher and friends at the Newport Folk Festival Backstage BBQ) and we enjoyed his playing very much so I was really looking forward to catching him again, and his performance at Cat in the Cream was the icing on the cake (the cat in the cream?) for me as a fan. The trio captivated the entire audience from the get go with songs from Sollee’s catalog, including his newest release Half Made Man.
Sollee’s sound is a unique musical blend of styles using an instrument that one would more often associate with chamber music as the anchor, and he uses it to create music that is energetic, punchy, folky and the driving rhythms channeled through his cello at times almost borders on funk—it’s fantastic!
Ben Sollee’s got the cello-funk!
Between songs Sollee, personable and very engaging, chatted with the audience and talked about himself and his longtime companion, his cello. He began playing his “long hair instrument” (as reportedly a family member of his called it) in 4th grade, which is pretty evident when witnessing his masterful at-one-ness with his cello. Sollee also played mandolin and guitar intermittently throughout the show. He also shared that often the subject matter of his material originates from experiences and things said to him that he “doesn’t quite know what to do with,” and his way of dealing with it is to “write a song about it,” thankfully for us! He is inventive, interactive and very entertaining. At one point as he began building a song through a sequence of samples he was creating on the spot, he elicited audience participation by asking everyone to yell something together. He captured the sound of our voices yelling “Hiiiii!!!!” in unison, which reverberated through the body of his cello. A few seconds later we heard ourselves loop through the structure of the song, at first the focal point (both humorous and mesmerizing to hear), then we washed into the background as the song continued to build, and off they went into the full song.
The audience remained seated attentively the entire set until finally he suggested he could take a short break so everyone could stand up a moment. But no one wanted him to stop so instead the “butt break” evolved into a quick stretch and everyone stood up to dance until the end (some pretty great interpretive moves spotted in the house!)
Sollee’s solid ethos is also intertwined throughout his performance. He stressed more than a few times the importance of environmental awareness and action (not only does he advocate alternate transport, he has become known as the man who very often tours great distances on bike with his cello strapped to his back), and he also underscored that his traveling band is essentially a small home-grown business. I also learned that his wife is a letterpress artist (which appeals greatly to the graphic designer/artist in me) and his lyrics are for sale in beautiful letterpress prints at the table along with other merch. Integrity in art is something very important to both Ady and I, and we both purposely seek out artists/musicians with this fundamentally at their core, and I was pleased to find that the world of Ben Sollee is a wonderful thing, indeed. If he happens to be headed for your neck of the woods as they continue the tour, please check him out!