My first job after college basically paid me in beans, but they did send all 150-ish recent college graduates working across the country out to Aspen for a week-long vacation. So there I was in December 2009 with a 3-day lift ticket but 7 days to hang around the beautiful mountain town. On one of those days, December 16th, bluegrass/folk-rock group Trampled by Turtles was slated to play The Belly Up with Ben Sollee as the opening support.
The group of folks I was sharing a condo with were all familiar with Trampled by Turtles, but we hadn’t heard of Ben Sollee. This was in the mysterious era after Napster and LimeWire but before smartphones were ubiquitous–I didn’t get my first one until the following spring. So with an off-day for skiing and little money, we had nothing better to do but to pool resources and walk down to the local music shop and buy a Ben Sollee CD (I realize that statement sounds so old I might as well be saying “we walked down to the local soda fountain to play jacks”). What we found in Ben Sollee’s first album Learning to Bend was stunning musicianship from the cellist spread across 11 fresh and socially-conscious songs. We were all hooked.
Fast forward to that night, the Belly Up was full of a few hundred thoroughly-imbibed flannel-wearing folk ready for a raucous evening with Trampled by Turtles. I would venture to guess that no one outside of our 5-6 friends had any idea what to expect from Ben Sollee, but when he walked out on stage by himself carrying his cello toward a single chair in the middle of the stage and started an instrumental intro to “How to See the Sunrise,” the only sounds you could hear in the venue were from oblivious barbacks clinking bottles on the wrong side of the swinging doors to the kitchen. Ben had the crowd completely captivated for 45 minutes that night–I can’t remember specifics about the headliner, but I still think of his opening set as one my favorite live music experiences.
In the years since, Ben Sollee has performed and recorded with a number of wonderful musicians, including a full band that included local folk singer Daniel Martin Moore for a tour supporting their mountaintop removal awareness album Dear Companion. Ben Sollee and Kentucky Native, which is the name of his current group and latest album, are bringing their originalist interpretation of bluegrass to the Woodward Theater on March 8th. Ben discusses the new album on his website: “Bluegrass music is immigrant music. It's the music of Irish and Scottish musicians bringing their fiddle tunes; it is gospel music; it is African music; it is gypsy jazz; it is rock 'n' roll. It is all these things. What makes it unique and of Kentucky is that it was distilled by the people who lived here in Kentucky, and turned into something else.” Whether playing solo or with a band, Ben Sollee’s songwriting and musicianship is enthralling and this show will be a unique musical experience for fans of folk music, bluegrass, classical, or anything between.