By Brian Tucker
(originally published in Performer magazine)
December 4, 2009 – The Soapbox – Wilmington, N.C.
On a nearly bare stage Ben Sollee sat with a cello, surrounded by two bikes parked behind him and percussionist Jordin Ellis. The image said it all about the performers, and their transportation, on a tour raising awareness for Oxfam America, an organization seeking to help end poverty. For this tour Sollee and his small crew were travelling solely by bike. Burden though it may have been, it seemed to have no effect on the evening’s performance.
“This is a great way to meet Wilmington. Thank you for letting some bike vigilantes play,” Sollee said, appreciating the crowd.
The sight of Sollee playing a cello in what is primarily in a rock club was great. But the sound, and presence, of his performance significantly held the crowd’s attention. He played the instrument in a variety of ways – strumming it tough like a guitar, or plucking, and working it sometimes as percussion. But it was his navigation between delicate, soulful singing on songs like the bittersweet “I Can’t” that harkened back to Sam Cooke and Stax-era singers to scorching vocals on “Bury Me With My Car.”
Jordin created percussion by sitting and hunching over a box made from thick pieces of wood, mic’d from the inside as he hand-patted rhythms against it and tapping his awkwardly placed foot. Jordin’s presence was equally felt on “It’s Not Impossible” another song that got people up for an impromptu waltz.
Sollee held attention either in astonishment or reverence as songs resonated throughout the night, whether by sweet singing or diversions to dissimilar genres like a cover Jay Z’s “99 Problems” or a request for Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” which became a magnet for ladies flocking to the dance floor.