The first four minutes of Ben Sollee’s 2013 Tedx Talk is a spontaneous, collaborative jam session with just him and a drummer. What you see Sollee playing is indeed a conventional cello, but the sounds coming out of it are anything but. While singing about modern society, he stretches the instrument to its limits, creating a soundscape of languid strings and futuristic, percussive notes. Whatever shape or form the music takes, it is undeniably dazzling, virtuosic and intriguing. It gives one a glimpse of the innovative spirit of Ben Sollee, a multi-instrumentalist and composer who takes the Levitt AMP Berea stage in Kentucky tonight at 7:30pm.
Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, Sollee was exposed to music at a young age by his surroundings and family. While he was the lone cello player in his school orchestra, home was filled with the sounds of rural, Appalachian folk. By joining in on numerous jam sessions after school with his grandfather—who played the fiddle—Sollee witnessed the convergence of two distinctly different musical styles and disciplines early on. He played classical music by day, and rural folk music by evening.
Sollee’s exact “genre” is hard to pin down—his repertoire spans an eclectic range including bluegrass, jazz, folk, chamber pop and everything in between. His newest album, Info Wars, was met with widespread critical acclaim, showcasing the intense drum-cello grooves and electronic layers akin to his Tedx performance. Sollee has played at festivals both at home and worldwide and received numerous accolades including “Top Ten Unknown Artists of the Year” (NPR), “The Best of What’s Next” (Paste), and an inclusion on a list of “Global Hits” (PRI by BBC).
In 2009, he embarked on a bicycle tour through the Appalachia and onwards to Bonnaroo music festival. He bought an Xtracycle—a wide framed bike—allowing him to carry his instrument as he slowly crossed the country playing music. This sustainable method of travel allowed him to play intimate shows in small communities he would have never gotten the chance to explore on a large-scale, national tour. Since then, he has travelled over 4000 miles, performing and speaking at festivals and workshops around the U.S.
Moreover, Sollee is vocal about a variety of environmental and social issues. His album Dear Companion raised awareness about the destructive practice of mountaintop removal coal mining, he has advocated for Tibetan autonomy by playing at Tibetan Freedom Concerts and organized several pay-what-you-wish shows, allowing his unique, musical experience to become more accessible to all.
Sollee is described as a “rogue cellist” in a Mother Jones magazine interview. It’s an apt description for him—few other cello players perform while wearing a t-shirt, without any sheet music and with a proclivity towards sounds completely foreign to the instrument. But few other cellists, as Levitteers in Berea, KY will find out, are as imaginative as him.