Cellist Ben Sollee and his band Kentucky Native performed what felt like a love letter to the state of Kentucky on Tuesday (9/12) at Schuba’s. They played songs from their self-titled debut album and a few of Sollee’s most popular songs from past albums, ending with an acoustic encore that included the crowd singing along to a Cat Stevens cover and the classic country tune “Drink Up and Go Home.”
Sollee took the stage with a knowing confidence in his bandmembers, a group of unknowns to an audience who’d paid to hear Sollee play the cello. They started their set with Carrie Bell, Sollee bellowing out the words and proving that the precision in his composition and performance wasn’t altered at all with the added bandmembers and instruments. His new band includes banjoist Bennett Sullivan who has a well-known app for banjo instruction, violinist Julian Pinelli and recent graduate of Berklee School of Music, bassist Alex Browne who also graduated from a master’s program in music recently, and longtime collaborator percussionist Jordan Ellis. I spent too much of the concert trying to figure out which musician I liked best or who was better, because I found myself constantly overwhelmed by the talent on stage. Everyone other than Sollee blessed the audience with a solo, including a drum solo and a bass solo. For being such a new project, they played together with the lighthearted comfort of an older band reflected in Sollee’s easy smile and confidence.
Sullivan is likely to be famous someday (or as famous as a banjo player can be…). He picked the banjo with a sickening speed, racing Pinelli on the violin. At other times their instruments would blend into one totally seamless sound. Sullivan’s banjo solo was strikingly beautiful, it felt like an airy melodic breath of fresh air in this panging, rush of a bluegrass concert.
Sollee has a wonderful stage presence. He’s warm and funny, and he’s quickly creates a casual intimacy and he cuts a classic folk figure. An environmentalist and activist, he collaborates with artists and dancers, he plays a range of musical styles, weaves narratives with song, and finds influence in eclectic places. At Schuba’s, he preached ethos of bluegrass as immigrant music, emphasizing the influence of gospel, african, and jazz music as well as the Irish and Scottish roots, and pointing out the Mexican huapango rhythm in before playing his song “Mechanical Advantage.” He talked about the the inspiration for his song “cajun navy,” an underreported story of community members coming together to save each other after flooding in Louisiana. He told us the story of the artist who died of ALS who inspired “Pieces of You.” He mentioned the pygmy yodeling recordings that brought about “Well Worn Man.”
The last few encore songs were played acoustically. Julien Pinelli was prompted to sing “Drink Up and Go Home” and it felt like a really fun church basement concert for a few minutes when people get put on the spot.
Local singer songwriter Emily White opened for Ben Sollee and Kentucky Native. She played clever songs with an alt-country charm reminiscent of the Dixie Chicks or the Indigo Girls, whom she covered. White is great songwriter, and if she formed an all girl country-folk band it would be a major boon to the Chicago folk scene.