This year’s Spring EquiKnox Lecture was not so much a lecture as a performance, featuring nationally known cellist and environmental activist Ben Sollee in an effort to approach sustainability from a more holistic perspective.
Sollee’s performance was the capstone of more than two dozen events throughout April held in celebration of Earth Month. An hour-long set followed a day of outdoor events for Earth Day, including a festival on the Gizmo patio featuring booths from community organizations and smoothies from a bicycle-powered blender.
“There were a lot of children here for the festival outside, which was exciting,” junior and co-president of Knox Advocates for Recycling and Environmental Support Danika Hill said. “The concert … was the best concert I think I’ve seen at Knox. But I may be biased.”
Although Sollee’s show had to be moved inside due to weather, the intimate space of the Taylor Lounge was packed with students and community members. The entirely acoustic show began with a duet cover of Damien Rice’s “9 Crimes,” with junior Amanda Shiew on ukulele and vocals and Sollee on cello.
“It was freaking awesome,” Shiew said of the experience. “I’m so glad it happened.”
Billed as a concert and a question-and-answer forum, Sollee’s performance included commentary on mountaintop removal interspersed with songs about progress, love and his theory on how the Globe Theatre in London burned down. His overall message was one of optimism in the face of challenges, epitomized in his final song, a rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.”
“That’s a really, really important belief to be maintained, especially as you work on these issues,” Sollee said.”
In other songs, Sollee seemed more resigned. “Something, Somewhere, Sometime” discussed Sollee’s frustration with “decisions made before my lifetime that I have to live with,” while “Electric” bemoaned the modern construction of progress as technological advancement.
“We have this idea that to improve something is to electrify it, whether it’s a grinder or a toothbrush or a blanket,” Sollee said. “So that’s progress, but I’m not always sure.”
A native of Kentucky, Sollee frequently plays benefit concerts for social and environmental organizations and frequently travels throughout the state to visit small towns — the places most affected by mountaintop removal, Sollee said.
“Everyone who lives downstream is affected by the process,” he said, referring to the coal dust and explosive toxins from mountaintop removal that make their way into rivers. “It’s not only bad for the environment, but it’s bad for the communities in the mountains.”
Trained as a classical cellist, Sollee recalled “jamming” with his father and grandfather as a child. It was this exposure to blues and folk music that led him to create his own style of playing, combining classical techniques with short, rough bow strokes and guitar-style strumming and picking. Halfway through the show, he had already broken a hair on his bow due to his energetic playing.
“These shows always come down to a DIY sort of moment. It’s my favorite thing,” Sollee said of playing college shows. “I never know what’s going to happen.”
Sollee’s performance was sponsored by KARES, Student Senate, the Cultural Events Committee, the Robison Lecture Fund, the Office of Sustainability, Garden Club, Friends of Green Oaks and Sigma Alpha Iota.