Ben Sollee

Ben Sollee live at The Cat in the Cream, Oberlin OH

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!

Review | The Newport Folk Festival: Hurry Hurry Step Right Up!

“We need a strategy,” he said as they looked over their 2012 Newport Folk Festival schedule.

Those were the very first words I heard in passing as we entered the festival grounds on Saturday morning, and he wasn’t kidding. Starting the night before—with the utopian setting sun, cool breeze off the bay and Wilco doing ultimate justice to the acoustics afforded by the old Fort Adams infrastructure—it was a whirlwind jam-packed-music-filled weekend beyond our expectations (although, we did expect it to surpass anything we hoped it to be, so we were right in that regard).

I liked imagining that it was a giant musical carnival, one filled with impromptu on-stage collaborations and surprise performances emerging among scheduled sets. Everyone dashed with excitement from stage to stage, just as one would do from ride to ride and game to game at the carnival, in attempt to catch as many diverse acts as we could, thanks in no small part to the equally music-obsessed festival organizers and producers. General consensus was that Ben Sollee, Taylor Goldsmith and Jackson Brown were the most frequently spotted wandering minstrels, though Conor Oberst and the Söderberg sisters (aka First Aid Kit) and many others randomly popped up on stages throughout the festival (collaboration is both fostered and encouraged at the festival) painting even more layers into the atmosphere.

Wilco performing at Fort Stage

Starting on Friday evening after our epic journey from Philadelphia PA, where rain and traffic and an accidental detour onto the wrong highway (by me, the guilty party) caused our drive to be almost double what we expected, we arrived into town and plunged into the myriad of events that awaited us. Wilco sounded better than ever as they opened with a punchy “Christ for President” in a nod to the festival’s celebration of Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday and the weekend blasted off from there, crowd tightly packed and on their feet at full attention.

It took every ounce of willpower for us to peel off slightly early so that we could slip back into town to catch Conor Oberst and Friends for the four hour plus set (which we will cover in more detail in a forthcoming post) at the beautiful Jane Pickens Theater. Happily, on our way on foot to the venue, we could hear the rest of the Wilco set bouncing across the water giving us a second, very different perspective of the show—a (very enjoyable) theme that would reoccur over the weekend with us seeing sets from front of stage, in the photo pit, on screen in the media tent, through portals in the old Fort Adams walls, from the backside of stages, and from the outskirts of the audience taking the entire scene in.

Night one down and already about 6 hours of live music under our belt.

[Insert post show food search and 5 hours sleep]

On Saturday we worked on our own strategy of how to properly cover the festival and take in and enjoy as much as we possibly could of the jam packed lineup. Upon entering we caught part of Brown Bird’s set on the Fort Stage, and then hurried over to the Museum Stage to see Sleepy Man Banjo Boys (truly talented beyond words already at ages 9, 13 and 14).

Sleepy Man Banjo Boys performing at the Museum Stage

From there we caught (order of appearance may be slightly askew) The Apache Relay for their super-charged set, Alabama Shakes via the screen in the media tent (amazing voice!), and looped around the other two stages, the Quad and Harbor Stages to see Jonny Corndawg, who we both thoroughly enjoyed, and Deer Tick who bowled me over. Preservation Hall Jazz Band (who were joined onstage with Pete Seeger’s grandson, Tao Rodríguez-Seeger and Ben Sollee), I immediately fell crazy in love with. I also did some serious people watching during their set because I really enjoyed seeing how physically affected by the music everyone was—dancing like mad and smiling during the oldtimey upbeat tunes one minute, then moved enough to exchange kisses and embraces during the slower ones the next.

The Apache Relay performing at the Harbor Stage

Jonny Corndawg performing at the Quad Stage

Preservation Hall Jazz Band performing at the Fort Stage

Deer Tick performing at Quad Stage

We later caught the entire First Aid Kit set, memorized just like everyone else. Johanna and Klara are like watching sparkling gems, lovely in sight and sound and full of grace as they belt out some of the most beautiful sounds imaginable. In a surprise, but slightly anticipated guest appearance, Conor Oberst took the stage to help finish the set with a bang during “King of the World” (a little side note, if only the The Felice Brothers could have been there for it, too!).

First Aid Kit performing at Harbor Stage

First Aid Kit

Conor Oberst joins First Aid Kit at Harbor Stage

We also caught bits of Honey Honey and later enjoyed sitting in the grass, listening to the story telling and songs by Arlo Guthrie and family as they celebrated the life of Woody Guthrie. All of this, and about 5 times of the amount of music we saw was going on elsewhere simultaneously, including Conor Oberst’s surprise set in the Kids Tent (tip: get the NFF App and PAY ATTENTION to the alerts they push during the festival!)

Jim James/My Morning Jacket performing at Fort Stage as the rain rolls in

. . . and the rain did roll in. (Shan, Ady and Kristi inside the BBQ tent)

As the evening marched on, the rain flooded Newport just like the music did, which cut loose right at the end of My Morning Jacket’s closing set on the main stage. During their set, I was excited to see Preservation Hall Jazz Band join them on stage. Jim James and co barreled through the songs as we watched through a tiny portal window inside the fort where we made new friends along the way. Finally the crowds dispersed during a powerful end to the set when the torrential storm picked up even more. We were able to keep semi dry until we realized we needed our passes to enter the intimate Backstage BBQ that immediately followed the festival, at which point we took off on foot to obtain them. When we arrived back at the fort, we, along with everyone else (including our friend Kristi who we had planned to me up there) were soaked from head to toe, but not deterred of our eagerness for yet another segment of the evening to begin.

In short, the BBQ was almost entirely cancelled due to the storm, but for those of us who decided to wait out another round of storms and remain, we watched as one by one musicians rose to the challenge to resurrect the evening with only their voices and acoustic instruments (and some hand claps too). A few highlights from the Backstage BBQ included off the cuff performances from Eric George, Joe Fletcher, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion , Jim James, Ben Sollee, Spirit Family Reunion with many others. When it was all over we made our way through the tunnel exit which, just hours prior was reportedly under, if memory serves me correctly, at least 18 inches of water. The BBQ itself, in my opinion worth the price of the entire weekend itself just to be present for an event that is sure to go down in NFF legend and history, will be covered in its own separate post in the next few days, including a full photo set. Until then, a sneak peak into the night:

Another full day of music still lay ahead of us the next day including one of the three Deer Tick after parties, but a few events occurred that were out of our control caused us to leave the next morning to be with family. I’d say that we were thoroughly disappointed to miss out on day three (we were) but what we experienced while there was so incredible that we did not leave feeling empty in any way. We did however, begin our countdown to the 2013 NFF, undoubtedly the best and most inspiring festival we’ve ever attended, the moment we left.

Until next year, Newport Folk Festival. We love you!

To see more photos the above bands you can find them on our 2012 Newport Folk Festival photo collection on Flickr. (If you don’t find a set you are looking for check back as we are continuing to upload photo sets as the days go by).

Video | Joe Fletcher and friends at the 2012 Newport Folk Festival Backstage BBQ

After a major storm blew through Newport, Rhode Island, the events planned for the after-festival intimate Backstage BBQ took an unexpected turn when Mother nature made an appearance and shaped the evening to come by stripping the stage from power. Those that chose to remain to the bitter (sweet) end were treated to what evolved into the purest example of what the Newport Folk Festival strives to foster: the celebration of music through collaborations. Unplanned, off-the-cuff, the stage was electrified not through a power supply, but through a sheer communal love of music as one by one musicians stepped forward to grace the stage with their presence. Once such collaboration evolved from a song brought forth by Joe Fletcher, who joined Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion and friends onstage to share it. Here is a glimpse into the night:

While organizers of the event may feel that it didn’t go quite as they planned it, I walked away (ankle deep in water) feeling that the unexpected extreme weather event created a sudden sense of unity—”we are all in this together” as they say! —and it will go down in my heart and mind as a truly legendary musical event. I am grateful to have been able to be there to share the experience with my sister Ady and our dear friend Kristi, and for the opportunity to have made new friends while we were all braving the storm.

More of our photos from the Backstage BBQ (a benefit event which reportedly raised over $20,000 for the Newport Festival Foundation and the Boys and Girls Club of Newport County), will be shared here very soon, which also include Jim James (My Morning Jacket) who led the audience in a lovely singalong version of Inxs’ “Never Tear Us Apart,” Ben Sollee, Spirit Family Reunion, Eric George and others.

Thanks to everyone involved for making it a beautiful night, and to Jay Sweet and his crew of advisors for making decisions to keep us all safe and smiling through it all.

(photo by Shan, video by Ady for Sisters Dissonance)