Americana Triptych

Acoustic Café takes its show on the road

An Acoustic Café Evening with Carrie Rodriguez, Ben Sollee and Erin McKeown 8 p.m., Sat. Feb. 6 Kent Stage 175 E. Main St. 330.677.5005 Tickets: $15

A conservatory-educated violinist, a classically trained cellist and an Ivy League ethnomusicology major walk into a bar. Sounds like a setup for a bad joke. But it's also a way to describe the three performers on the Acoustic Café Evening tour.

The violinist is Carrie Rodriguez, the cellist is Ben Sollee and the Ivy Leaguer is Erin McKeown. The tour was the brainchild of Rodriguez and her manager, John Porter. Rodriguez has been a Sollee admirer since they both attended Boston's Berklee College of Music; she got to know McKeown when they briefly toured together last year.

Rodriguez is also a fan of the long-running syndicated radio program Acoustic Café, heard locally on WBWC 88.1 FM (Saturday 11 p.m.-1 a.m. and Sunday 3-5 p.m.) and Akron's WAPS 91.3 FM (Saturday 6-8 a.m.). Host/producer Rob Reinhart, who started the Michigan-based show in 1995, was eager to put the Acoustic Café's name on the tour because, he says, the adventurous threesome embodies how the show pushes the boundaries of folk, country, rock, jazz and pop music.

That this collaborative is Rodriguez's baby shouldn't be surprising; she's always worked well with others. The Austin native surfaced on the Americana scene in 2002, when she teamed up with legendary songwriter Chip Taylor (the author of tunes like "Wild Thing" and "Angel of the Morning") for a trio of Texas-branded albums. Her 2006 solo debut, Seven Angels on a Bicycle, featured Taylor's songs and revealed a more sophisticated sound for Rodriguez. Her second outing, She Ain't Me (which included co-writes with the Jayhawks' Gary Louris, alt-country darling Mary Gauthier and Semisonic's Dan Wilson), further developed her alluring twang-fringed rock sound. On her upcoming album, Love & Circumstances, due in April, she covers songs by Hank Williams and M. Ward.

This concert also represents something of a homecoming for the Brooklyn-based musician. Rodriguez, whose father is singer-songwriter David Rodriguez, started playing violin in elementary school and became good enough to get into Oberlin's conservatory. But she had an epiphany about her musical future at a local Lyle Lovett concert and transferred to Berklee to play fiddle rather than classical violin.

Hailing from Kentucky, Sollee shares not only Rodriguez's Berklee background but her interest in musical collaborations. In less than a decade, Sollee has performed with an impressive spectrum of musicians — from progressive bluesman Otis Taylor to boundary-pushing bluegrass ensemble the Sparrow Quartet (which included Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn). On his new album, Dear Companion, he collaborates with fellow Kentuckian Daniel Martin Moore. My Morning Jacket's Jim James produced. 

Sollee's music redefines how the cello can be used as a lead instrument in Americana music. His picking style projects a distinctive quality that makes his cello sound rootsy and jazzy. Sollee puts across his well-crafted acoustic-based tunes with a gently persuasive voice, which can turn convincingly soulful, as it does on his marvelous reworking of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come."

McKeown, who is joining Rodriguez and Sollee for the tour's final few shows, has developed a loyal following over the past decade. On her early albums, the multi-instrumentalist pulled together a multitude of musical genres — rock, folk, pop, blues and other roots styles. In 2007, she focused on being a Hoagy (Carmichael)-loving hep-kitten with a swinging set of standards, Sing You Sinners. She took another 180-degree turn on last year's Hundreds of Lions. Her versatility reflects the range of musical tastes and skills all three musicians on this show possess.

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