Walter Tunis: Ben Sollee brings new album to Transy concert

Contributing Music WriterFebruary 13, 2014 


Ben Sollee will perform Saturday at Transylvania. He has a new album, The Hollow Sessions, recorded last summer near Prospect.

JONATHAN PALMER — 2012 file Photo Buy Photo


    Keb' Mo' at the Lexington Opera House: For nearly 2½ hours, singer, guitarist and (briefly) banjoist Mo' performed songs that referenced the blues but also flirted regularly with folk, soul and assorted points in between. But it wasn't the stylistic hopscotch that sheltered the show from anything too rustic in the blues department. The casual and congenial attitude Mo' revealed in abundance set the mood for the evening.

    In short, if he intended the concert as a blues program (and it's a safe bet he didn't) then what resulted was the cheeriest blues outing imaginable.

    Take, for instance, The Old Me Better, a preview tune from Mo's forthcoming album BLUESAmericana. The tune happily pines for the days before a budding romance devolves into a marital makeover ("You made me a brand new man, but I like the old me better"). On the other end of the chronological scale was She Just Wants to Dance, a song that reached back to the singer's self-titled 1994 album. It outlined right in its title all one especially emancipated female desires from a night out.

    There were certainly echoes of the blues within the songs. The show-opening Every Morning (also from the '94 album) was the first of many songs Mo' colored with the wiry slide of steel guitar. But even then, he showed little interest in making the sound too scholarly. In fact, the song boasted Tom Shinness on cello as its only accompaniment. Shinness also played bouzouki, electric bass and the double neck harp guitar. "It costs twice as much to check that thing in at the airport," Mo' joked, referencing the latter instrument.

    Casey Wasner was added on drums for roughly one-third of the lengthy set, culminating in an extended string of songs near the end of the evening that turned the trio into an electric combo. But the mood was no more rockish than it was bluesy. In the trio's hands, the bemoaning Dirty Lowdown and Bad was only modestly more desperate than the show closing self-help anthem BetterMan. The mood in each — at least, musically — was all blue sky bliss, minus the blues.

Ben Sollee

8:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at Transylvania University Haggin Auditorium, 300 N. Broadway. $15, $5 for Transylvania students.

The upside of Ben Sollee's latest homecoming concert will be that he won't have to pedal very far to get to the gig. Among the many distinctions fortifying the career of the pop songsmith, cellist, activist and Lexington native has been a very green-minded means of tour transportation.

For several of his concert treks, Sollee has sustained himself by riding from show to show on a bicycle. As such, his performance Saturday at Transylvania won't call for pedal power, should Sollee choose that mode of travel again.

The downside to all this? Well, just look outside. Unless some kind of Bermuda high chooses to displace the ongoing series of seasonal storms in time for Valentine's Day weekend, Sollee won't exactly have the most optimal cycling weather at his disposal.

Once he gets to Transy, though, expect another generous serving of original folk-informed pop. Sollee has long been familiar to Lexington and Louisville audiences for a series of strong indie albums — from his debut, Learning to Bend, through the recent Half Made Man — as well as a series of recording and performance collaborations with the likes of Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn (in the Sparrow Quartet), fellow Kentuckian Daniel Martin Moore and top Louisville rock export My Morning Jacket.

Before all of that, of course, Sollee played to local audiences weekly at the Kentucky Theatre as part of the house band for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. He returned to the Kentucky last fall for another college audience event, a show presented by the University of Kentucky.

Saturday's Transy concert will likely provide a live sampling of a new studio recording called The Hollow Sessions. This is essentially Sollee's covers album, a set of tunes that have inspired much of the cellist's own songwriting. Recorded last summer near Prospect, the record also reveals just how far Sollee's spectrum of influences reaches.

The record boasts lean, spirited arrangements of songs by Tom Waits (Chocolate Jesus), Paul Simon (The Obvious Child), The Zombies (This Will Be Our Year), Gillian Welch (Everything Is Free), Fiona Apple (Extraordinary Machine) and other works. Capping it all is a none-too-subtle summation of Sollee's roots: his reading of Bill Monroe's signature heartbreak anthem Blue Moon of Kentucky.

The Transylvania student band The Dreamin' Rovers will kick off the performance. Doors open at Haggin Auditorium at 8 p.m. Saturday.

Sugar and mud

Monday's taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third Street, will feature a new band that boasts a few familiar names.

On the bill will be the Americana troupe Willie Sugarcapps, a quintet that luxuriates in roots-driven blues, folk and country. Among its ranks are Will Kimbrough (who has played Lexington over the years behind Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and others along with a long line of local club shows as a headliner) and Anthony Crawford (an artist with a mile-long list of credits topped by frequent stints with Neil Young). Grayson Capps, Corky Hughes and Savana Lee complete the lineup of players that began gigging together during weekly jam sessions at the outdoor Sugarhill, Ala., music haunt known as the Frog Pond. The venue's name seems to have figured into the swampy grooves that propel the self-titled debut recording Willie Sugarcapps released last summer.

Balancing out the band's bayou-flavored sound at WoodSongs will be Baskery, a trio composed of three Swedish folk-rock sisters (Greta, Stella and Sunniva Bondesson). Baskery is touring the United States to promote Little Wild Life, its latest album of rustic, self-described "mud country" music. (6:45 p.m. $10. Call (859) 252-8888 for reservations.

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