Ben Sollee – The Orange Peel – Asheville, NC – June 23, 2011
I’m a sucker for a string section. I’m not going to lie.
Stringed instruments are, by nature, percussive. Obviously, they are if/when you pluck the strings (or hit them with hammers, as happens with a piano). They can also strike a certain vibration which feels like large thick nails on concrete, like something’s coming. That sawing vibration sends a creeping sensation into your gut, wraps a palm around your belly and squeezes. Hopping from that directly to the percussive staccato of a short-bowed string is possibly one of the most exciting musical experiences, to my ear. When a string section (or a single player) manages to do this quickly, in the rhythm of a blues tune or a swing, or even a honkytonk number, you’ve got to stand up and applaud. You’ve got to loose your feet and groove to that shit.
Throw in a smooth, soulful vocal and bam!
And so it is that Ben Sollee hit the Orange Peel last night, doing all those things.
First, though, there were seats set up, which was strange. The opening act – Thousands – seemed to call for sitting down (and dozing off with your feet stretched out on the chair in front of you), but there’s something about Sollee’s music which seems slighted by the presence of chairs. Even the slow, sad, quiet tunes – like the a cappella number with which he started – have a certain…body sway to them. By the time he broke into “How to See the Sun,” those standing were irretrievable. The joint was in his pocket.
One of the cool things about Sollee is that he’s worked with some of the finest musicians in this genre. Last night, for example, he had fiddler Casey Driessen (Bela Fleck, Tim O’Brien, the Duhks, etc.) come out for some tunes, to fiddle-battle with his touring fiddler Phoebe Hunt (The Belleville Outfit). Jonathan Scales (of the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra) sat in on steel drums for almost one-third of the set. All this in the same spirit as his most recent release – Inclusions – a disc about…well, inclusions. Community. It was fitting, then, that the show closed with “Only a Song.”
I wouldn’t make a sound if I wasn’t so angry.
I wouldn’t be running if there wasn’t so far to go.
I wouldn’t keep on if there wasn’t something worth keeping.
I want to believe that this mountain can be moved.
But this is only a song, it can’t change the world.
Near the last refrain, Sollee – backed by his regular band and both his guests – brought the instrumentation down and addressed the audience. “I’m not one of those people who believes music can change the world,” he said. Someone in the audience called out “It can change people.” Sollee continued.
To paraphrase: music inspires people, but it’s up to those people to decide what to do with that inspiration. “So…it doesn’t make sense for us to keep singing this song to you,” he said. “Sing with us.” With that, everyone in the room got on their feet (who wasn’t standing already) and sang along.
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the percussive rhythm of Sollee’s strings, exactly, which had grabbed most of the audience by the gut at that point and squeezed. But it’s safe to say by the end most folks had been grabbed.