Ben Sollee, Thousands Fitzgerald's July 21, 2011
"I don't know anything about cello or classical arrangements but I like this stuff," Aftermath said to our classical-music teacher, great friend and sometime colleague Meghan Hendley, keyboardist for local group Tyagaraja. We were both upstairs at Fitzgerald's for the Ben Sollee gig.
And she still has not emailed us that glossary of classical terms we would need to know during the night so we wouldn't look like a stupid meathead in this review. For shame.
This was not the usual show where you will see Aftermath, at least not this one. Our natural habitat as of late has been the Toyota Center, covering the latest female popper or major touring rock act.
The quiet inside Fitz, especially during the opening set by fragile and dear acoustic Thousands was deafening. Houston had shut the hell up and was listening to the Seattle-based group made up of Kristian Garrard and Luke Bergman.
We had one of those moments, not unlike that Patton Oswalt bit, where one of his fans at a show couldn't stay silent (silence is pain!) during a particularly deep bit and had to scream. We didn't holler, but we did run outside to set our phone to silent, and had our jangling keys from jingling around the venue. Shaking the sillies out.
To define Sollee as merely a classical artist is to ignore the soulfulness he exudes. He somehow makes cello sound like one of the bluesiest, happiest and most thoughtful instruments around. In the close quarters of Fitz, and with the expert work of in-house sound designer Lauren Oakes, the audience could hear every bit of the set the way it was intended through cello, violin, and drums.
The material from his new album, Inclusions, is a lot warmer and sunnier than his 2008 disc Learning To Bend. This time around he doesn't seem so guarded and newborn. Now he's writing even more intriguing songs, like "Bible Belt," a mid-show highlight.
"Teach Me" was clearly baby-making music for most of the female crowd, with Sollee and company wrenching out the slow jam, and Sollee sliding his bow back and forth and up and down, with Hendley cheering like Aftermath at a Slayer show during "Angel Of Death."
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We sat to the right of Sollee and his band, watching his bow slowly wear down. You don't get that at rock shows, and you surely don't see people showing this much rapt attention either. It was to the point where if you needed to throw a beer bottle away, you waited for break in between songs, or you did that slow crawl into the bottom of the trash can to ease the bottle's fall.
He closed his set out with a burning cover of Tom Waits' Mule Variations cut "Chocolate Jesus," which somehow managed to out-grime Waits' version, with Sollee leaning back with his instrument like a bluesman trying to tear the blues out of his guitar. The harsh sounds from a really abused and beloved cello were bedtime story we took home with us.
Personal Bias: We have been following Sollee for a few years now, and it was great to finally see him live and in person.
The Crowd: Reverent-ass white folks; girls in flowing dresses, dudes in sandals and shorts, lots of cuddling couples. It was a very dignified affair, and a welcome change.
Overheard In the Crowd: Mostly nothing, except for Rocks Off's friend Meghan pointing out things Sollee was doing to his cello in classical terms. She called it "pizzicato," but we called it "picking at it like a guitar."
Random Notebook Dump: Sollee and his two-piece band set aside one-third of each tour to traveling by bicycle. Not to be "green" or whatever, but to see the country. As he said onstage "You can't just roll up your windows when you get to a certain part of town." This October they are rolling from Baton Rouge to Orlando.
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Carrie Bell Something Somewhere Captivity Hurting Teach Me Prettiest Tree Close To You Mute With A Bullhorn The Globe Cluttered Mind Bible Belt Try Fly On It's Not Impossible Panning For Gold Wild World (Cat Stevens) Electrified Bury Me With My Car Chocolate Jesus (Tom Waits)