Review: Ben Sollee at the Kentucky Theatre

Cellist and singer Ben Sollee on stage at the Kentucky Theatre on April 22, 2015, with percussionist Jordan Ellis. © Herald-Leader photo by Rich Copley (with cameraphone).

Cellist and singer Ben Sollee on stage at the Kentucky Theatre on April 22, 2015, with percussionist Jordan Ellis. © Herald-Leader photo by Rich Copley (with cameraphone).

Musicians often give hometown shows around holidays. Thanksgiving or Christmas visits can provide the perfect excuse for a hometown gig.

But it was only fitting that the holiday Ben Sollee chose to make a Kentucky Theatre stand was Earth Day. After all, this is the guy who has a cello carrier on his bicycle — and sometimes tours that way — and has a catalog full of songs about the land and environmental responsibility (and irresponsibility). There are so many, in fact, my daughter lamented he didn’t play one of his environmental gems, Bury Me With My Carbut we all acknowledged it was a pretty darned swell show.

Ben Sollee. Photo by Magnus Lindqvist.

Ben Sollee. Photo by Magnus Lindqvist.

It was also a very personal show Sollee opened saying, “Hello, hometown,” and stopped in several places to remember how he discovered the cello when he was a student at Yates Elementary School and learned different ways of playing it through his father, a rhythm and blues musician, and his grandfather, a bluegrass banjo player. At another point, he brought out his son, Oliver, to show us how to plant a tree in Minecraft.

Maybe his most relevant pause for the evening was introducing percussionist Jordan Ellis, a Frankfort native who Sollee met when they were both in all-state band and Ellis was regarded as the wunderkind. That has not changed as Ellis proved himself to be both and accomplished and creative percussionist, collaborating with Sollee on some of the concert’s most magical moments, such as Prettiest Tree on the Mountain, which seemed to be drawing to a close, and then they engaged in an accelerating exchange that created a thrilling second half to the song.

The 16-song set covered a broad swath of Sollee’s catalog, but the sweetest moment came with the performance of Loving Memory from his new EP, Steeples, Part One. After the lights went black at the end of the previous song, Sollee lit a lantern and asked that the sound system be switched off. He then proceeded to play the pleasantly haunting song, just wood and voice, to the silent Kentucky Theatre crowd.

It was one of those moments that make live performances so thrilling.

Opener Twin Limb was at its best serving as Sollee’s backup band, particularly on the late set combo of DIY and a Springsteen-esque performance of Pursuit of Happiness, which Sollee said was the first-ever live performance of the 2012 song from his Half Made Man album.

As a trio, Twin Limb had a hard time holding interest. It essentially felt like the group played the same droning, wailing song seven or eight times, and their onstage configuration facing one another made you wonder if they were aware they had an audience. A combination of Drums, electric guitar and accordion, the Louisville band is interesting and clearly talented. But the stage presentation and songwriting (and enunciation) need work for this to be a compelling live act.

This was a night that Sollee came home and showed how a combination of powerful message and musicianship, with a lot of heart, can combine for a transcendent night of music.

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