Saturday, April 3, 2010

Ben Sollee with Carrie Rodriguez

Iota Club and Café
Arlington, VA
January 29th, 2010

At the risk of sounding repetitive, I must say that tonight’s show at Iota was one of the more impressive musical acts I’ve had the privilege of seeing over the course of this project. I realize that I’ve probably made this sort of grandiose statement about more than a few of the artists that I’ve covered here, but that’s irrelevant. If I told you that a guy from Lexington, Kentucky would bring down the house armed with nothing but a cello, would you believe me? Read on…

Carrie Rodriguez
The evening got started with a heartfelt set from the beautiful and talented singer/songwriter Carrie Rodriguez. Hailing from a music town (Austin, TX) and coming from a music family (her father David Rodriguez is a singer/songwriter and her aunt Eva Garza was a popular Latin artist in the 50’s); it isn’t surprising that Carrie Rodriguez makes a living with a guitar and her remarkable voice. When she took the stage on Friday night, Rodriguez treated the capacity crowd to an energetic blend of folk rock, with just enough twang to keep her inner Hank Williams (that would be Sr., not Jr.) satisfied.

Swapping between her fiddle and both acoustic and electric tenor guitars (meaning they only have 4 strings) and using a very effective boot-stomp technique as her sole source for percussion, Rodriguez played her songs with purpose and passion, mesmerizing the audience all the while. In fact, Carrie was most impressive when singing those songs that obviously had a huge emotional impact on her. For example, before playing “Seven Angels on a Bicycle”, the singer was very solemn when she explained that she had written the song about a close childhood friend who she lost way too soon at the young age of 25. Apparently, her friend had once ridden his bike all the way from Seattle to Austin, hence the title of the aforementioned song.

Later, towards the end of her set, Rodriguez played a cover of a song that her father had written and sent to her via email from Holland where he “went on tour when she was 15 and never came back”. The song was an autobiographical account of a “wandering troubadour”. Hearing these slices of Carrie Rodriguez’ life put to music, it’s evident that she too has become that wandering troubadour from her father’s song. The result of these collective experiences is an amazing singer/songwriter and tonight, those of us in the audience were the lucky beneficiaries.

Ben Sollee
Alright, as impressive as the opening act was at Iota tonight, nothing could top the headliner. Ben Sollee took his seat onstage, picked up his cello and proceeded to pluck, pop, strum, beat and bow the instrument into submission. The results were amazing, and it was immediately obvious that we were watching a master seamlessly demonstrate his craft. To be sure, I know nothing about the cello, but I can honestly say that I saw one of (if not the) most impressive cellists in the world at Iota on Friday night…I know it.

Let me explain this a little better…Sollee picked up his instrument and played it like a guitar, slapped the hollow body of it for percussion, used a bow in the traditional sense, plucked it like an upright bass and basically made it do anything he needed it to do. As if that weren’t enough, Ben managed to lay down some smooth, soothing vocals over the top of each song, creating an astounding mix of folk, bluegrass, R&B and rock. With an ever present smile, the headliner managed to make the cello seem like an obvious choice for any budding rock star…guitar, who needs a guitar? To be fair, Ben did play some impressive guitar during his set, but its that cello that makes his music so noteworthy.

After his inspiring solo set, Ben took a short break before bringing Carrie Rodriguez back onstage with him for an encore set of duets. Ben’s cello and Carrie’s fiddle made for a perfect combination and the duo continued to delight the Iota crowd with their folksy mix of down home, Americana music. By the time Ben closed the show with an improbable, hilarious and yet rousing rendition of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”, every jaw in the place had to be picked up off the floor.

Before I close, let me just say that the Music Binge continues to introduce my ears to new and exciting music from all over the world. As I said at the beginning of this write-up, despite the amazing acts I’ve been lucky enough to see over these past few months, tonight’s performance was on a different level altogether. Do yourself a favor and check out Ben Sollee (and Carrie Rodriguez) if and when they come to your town. Artists like this are few and far between…and besides, don’t you want to know what Jay-Z sounds like on a cello?!?

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