Speaking of bearing witness, back up a little bit more, and you’d find me at the Hotel Cafe the night before, watching Kentuckian cellistBen Sollee pay to a comfortable-sized crowd. Sandwiched between Steve Forbert and something called Super Soul Monday, Solleecrammed as much authenticity as one could possibly drag – kicking and screaming, I’d imagine – into a Hollywood bar. He only had 45 minutes to pull off that magic trick, but I wasn’t concerned. Sollee is a proficient authentician. He delivered songs from his new album Half Made Man – a remarkably touching, arrestingly honest disc which drops on the 25th – as well as a couple from last year’s Inclusions.
I stood there hyper-aware, of course, of my typical 9/10 state of mind. (I’ve long since let go the illusion that 9/10 was the last day when everything made sense. Nothing has ever made sense.) The energy I recognize in myself each September 10 is always markedly different from that of the day which follows. Sep. 10 is a somber, thoughtful day of observance. Sep. 11 makes sense as being focused more inward. The search for peace and beauty wherever I am becomes vital. Hollywood Boulevard made this a chore. Ben Sollee made it simple.
There’s this funny word people use for the kind of earnestly kind and determined quality by which people like Ben Sollee seem to be so driven: “naive”. Or sometimes they’ll use the word “optimistic” which, when used to describe anyone other than onesself, tends to carry with it a sort of negative judgment. Yes, we’ve all been on Earth a different amount of time, but once you’ve left your parents’ house and struck out on your own, the naivete dissipates in almost no time. For many of us, it leaves even before that date. Further, anyone who would call a traveling artist “optimistic” like its a bad thing has no idea the reality of living on the road away from everything familiar and comforting and supportive and secure, making a pittance in order to share the unshareable emotions with rooms full of strangers. To choose a life of touring (by bicycle, no less) and come out the other end with a sense of optimism, is a feat. Plain and simple.
That Sollee has found a way to put this optimism into music which is neither cliched or silly – or, dare I say, even naive – is impressive alone. He can sing about mountaintop removal or the Bible Belt or changing the world with authority, despite his 20-something years, because this is the life he lives. He’s not imagining a story of pain or serenity or empowerment or confusion. His lyrics acknowledge all those things without pretense and zero in on the truth as he knows it. As a result, the songs are wholly convincing. Never preachy or presumptuous. Never glinted by an attractive facade. This is a guy with a cello, for chrissakes – a skinny white boy from Kentucky with black-rimmed glasses and a wife and son, and a heart on his sleeve.
It makes sense that we had to walk around the back of the building to get in, to duck into an alley to find a door where you can only pay cash. It makes sense that it’s safe to say a good portion of the crowd were Sollee’s friends and family – a crowd full of real honest-to-goodness human connections. Imagine.
Back home here in Asheville, Sollee will play to another crowded house at the Orange Peel later this month – a crowd of hundreds of strangers hanging on his every word (if his previous shows at that same venue are any indication). But in Los Angeles, in that small room, it was okay to see him deliver such an impressive set to so few people. Whatever interest LA has in authenticity – which hadn’t already flown to Nashville for the AMAs – was probably present. Sollee’s seasoned bow pulling hard against an emotional song he’s never played live before, a certain kind of humanity shone through – something unmistakable and clear. Meanwhile, not far from there, another honest side of humanity was sloppily stumbling home, past Judy Garland’s star.