When last we left Ben Sollee, the Lexington cello stylist turned national (and now international) pop-folk journeyman was winning an argument with Mother Nature.
The setting was Phoenix Park, where Sollee, Coralee and the Townies and Josh Nolan held court for the August installment of WUKY-FM's inaugural Phoenix Friday concert series. Nolan managed to squeeze in his set before the heavens erupted with what was arguably the summer's most unrelenting thunderstorm.
"When the rain came, everybody went into the various corners," recounts Sollee, who returns to the region on Thursday for a performance at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. "Some people went ahead and left. Some people stayed on. Probably about 30 or 40 of us collected under the canopy of Park Place Apartments. Eventually they called the police, who told us to move along. So we jammed into the elevator lobby."
Calling the space a "lobby" is at best, generous. Still, with a weatherbeaten crowd that had dwindled from the hundreds to a handful of devotees that included two major VIPs, Sollee adapted to the setting and carried on.
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"I grabbed the cello and started playing tunes," Sollee says. "It was like, 'Alright, folks. Elevator concert! Who wants to hear what?' So as I played my songs, the elevator would come down and the doors would open like in some type of Wes Anderson movie and the people inside would look shocked. Then others started getting the idea to climb up the stairs and get in the elevator and then come down to watch the concert from the elevator.
"It was a really special experience. Probably what made it extra special was my parents, Bob and Myra Sollee, were also huddled around that space. They're musicians — not professional, but wonderful musicians that raised me on a lot of good music. It's a rare occasion when we get to sing or jam in any type of public setting. So my mom sang with me and my dad kind of drummed on things. It was really fun."
The August show continued a fruitful year for Sollee. In September, he undertook his first headlining tour of Europe (he played there previously in collaborative settings with banjo star Abigail Washburn and bluesman Otis Taylor). Last week, he was literally left hanging in North Carolina by the Charlotte Ballet ("They had me in a little platform cage suspended above the stage that moved around during different parts of the show. It was pretty crazy."). Then, on the heels of the EKU performance, Sollee will perform for two evenings with the Louisville Orchestra and Nashville fiddler Jeremy Kittell for a composition by the latter aptly titled Big Fiddle.
But what of Sollee's own music? While collaborations and activism continue to drive his career, the always prolific Sollee has not released a new studio album since 2012's Half-Made Man. That doesn't mean, though, that the cellist hasn't been stockpiling a few songs.
"I've had music recorded for a long time, but I haven't put anything out because management and so on are going, 'Well, we should just get a record label.' So we keep searching and searching. But I've gotten kind of tired of waiting, so I told everybody, 'Hey I'm going to put out two EPs (a two volume set called Steeples) this fall. Hope you're all okay with that.'
"You know, I've always been the kid who has been into everything. When I was a student at SCAPA (School for Creative and Performing Arts) Lafayette, I was in the orchestra, was in all the musical theatre that I could get into, was briefly on the cheerleading squad, was involved in student government ... all of that. I got into everything. What I liked about that was it really taught me how all artistic disciplines kind of inform each other. That's what I really get excited about.
"Could I have imagined it would all lead to this broad spectrum of projects I'm involved with today? Totally. But picturing how it all shook out on the path to get there? Unimaginable."