Ben Sollee (on the bike, with cello) gets ready to hit the road. (Photo courtesy of Ben Sollee)
You could say singer-songwriter Ben Sollee likes a slower pace of life. Sollee's music on two recent albums is modern pop, but it's spare, melodic and played on acoustic instruments--with his expressive cello up front. And if the show you happened to catch started late, it's not because the band's van broke down on the highway--Sollee and his percussionist travel by bicycle. Call it the Ditching the Van tour, because they do.
"Going green" for many bands means fueling the vehicles with biodiesel and playing on solar stages. Sollee is from Kentucky, where producing energy often means the environmental disaster known as mountaintop removal mining (a theme that runs through his second album, Dear Companion). That would be reason enough to park the gas-guzzling van, but the bicycle-based tour that begins August 18 is more about thinking and acting locally than it is about reducing carbon footprints.
"Green' has become a verb," Sollee says. "It's a marketing and selling point that has become a byproduct of musicians' lifestyle on the road. There are a lot of expectations put on you, and it leads to this crazy pace of life-three-month periods where you're driving long distances from one venue to the next, loading and unloading the van, then staying in a cheap hotel. You don't even remember most of the shows when you're doing that."
And that's why so many songs are about motel rooms, or why the road life sucks. Sollee thinks he's found a better way. "We do regional tours, playing only at places that are within bicycle range," Sollee said. "And that means we look to play in places with bike shops (and sometimes in bike shops), strong local communities that maybe don't see a lot of touring music."
The tour starts in San Diego at a combined sushi bar and art gallery, and winds its way through southern California before heading east for stops in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. It's not about big venues--stops include the Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Festival in Kempton, Pennsylvania, Biller's Bikes in Havre de Grace, Maryland, the Edmund Burke School in Washington, D.C., and the Tour da Arts in Santa Monica, California.
These are performances without much separation between artist and audience, and that's the way Sollee likes it. He encourages people coming to his shows to ride their bikes to the gig. After all, as he points out, the carbon footprint of a Dave Matthews concert isn't all that much affected by the biodiesel in the band's bus when 20,000 people drove their cars to the stadium.
The logistics of carrying a cello on a bicycle fascinated me. Sollee rides an Xtra bike with a stretched wheelbase and a heavy steel frame. His 1930s-era cello rides in a lightweight carbon fiber hardshell case strapped below him with the neck facing forward. Just the cello is more than 20 pounds, but when you add in clothes, food, a laptop and other essentials, the riding package is 60 pounds. Moving all that weight definitely keeps Sollee in shape--the first few times he tried it, he was almost too tired to perform, but now he has more energy than ever.
Riding the roads in car-oriented America is a challenge. Sollee and crew would have an easier time of it ditching the van in Europe, where bike riding and public transportation are integrated into people's lives. A European tour is a distinct possibility, says Sollee, who was awed by the biking community he saw on a recent trip to Sweden.
When you think about it, pop music started in the garage, that uniquely American shrine to the centrality of the automobile in our lives. But most of those garages have bikes in them too. I heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the U.S. leads the world in bicycle ownership, but trails it in actual bike use. Sollee's one-man musical crusade is out to change that damning statistic, one song at a time.
Find out more about Ben's music here.
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