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Live Review: Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore at McCabe's

March 29, 2010 |  5:32 pm
Ben This weekend was all about triumphant rap, parking-lot emo and deep South minimalism. But in the tiny back room of McCabe's on Friday night, Daniel Martin Moore and Ben Sollee made a much quieter, but maybe more insistent, statement of modern musical identity.

The easygoing singer-songwriters, both Kentucky natives, collaborated on February’s “Dear Companion,” one of the loveliest and most articulate Americana records in recent months.

Its success is built largely on the duo’s close harmonies and adventurous string work, but "Companion" is also the rare record created entirely for specific activist purposes -- namely, to raise awareness of a particularly destructive mining process called mountaintop removal, which has  wreaked environmental havoc across Appalachia.

But Moore and Sollee made their point Friday with a set of understated, graceful virtuosity. Bolstered by a bewitching multi-instrumentalist string-and-percussion duo, the quartet made propulsive, rambling tracks such as “Something, Somewhere, Sometime” sound clear and intimate, while the Carter Family-indebted “My Wealth Comes to Me” felt charged with the weight of a hymnal.

That’s the potency of “Dear Companion”: The players are so prodigiously talented that they can cover a ton of ground with very little instrumental fuss. The album’s drum-heavy title track hit with all the doom of a thunderclap, but a winsome tune like “Only a Song” took the classic recurring-lyric country conceit and made something both funny and implacably sad from it. They kept joking about how crushingly quiet the McCabe’s audience was, but the attention was earned.

The lanky Moore cuts a Townes Van Zandt-esque figure onstage (who was the last rocker you saw who tucked his shirt into his jeans onstage?), and Sollee takes some often thrilling liberties with his cello. “Companion” came out on Sub Pop, and it feels rife with festival-crossover potential if the two keep touring together. It’s bluegrass, but it never once felt like either a museum piece or an overtly winking genre-busting gesture like Nickel Creek’s Pavement cover. It’s mountain music from today’s ridges, and for an hour on Friday it felt like Moore and Sollee could really save them.

-- August Brown

Photo by Guy Mendes