Ol­la­belle works in har­mony

FORMED IN N.Y. BAR: De­sire to do ‘real vo­cal ar­range­ments’ unites mu­si­cians

The Province - - E-today - BY JOHN P. MCLAUGH­LIN

There used to be this wa­ter­ing hole in New York called Bar 9C be­cause it in­ter­sected the cor­ner of 9th Street and Av­enue C. About the time the two tow­ers went down, it had quite or­gan­i­cally be­come some­thing of a club­house, a nexus for young New York singers, song­writ­ers and mu­si­cians with a rootsy, neo-folk bent.

Roger, the bar guy, booked the place, de­vot­ing one night to blue­grass, an­other to old-timey mu­sic, an­other to singer/song­writ­ers and so on. Af­ter a while, all the dif­fer­ent play­ers and singers got to know one an­other and would drift in and out of var­i­ous group­ings and amal­gams, de­pend­ing on what was called for.

One was Glenn Patscha, a key­board guy from Win­nipeg who lit out for New Or­leans at 18 where he stud­ied with El­lis Marsalis, Wyn­ton’s daddy. There he met Amy Helm, the singer/song­writer daugh­ter of Levon Helm, fa­mous drum­mer for The Band.

Af­ter mov­ing to New York, at Bar 9C the two even­tu­ally met up with Aus­tralian singer/song­writer Fiona McBain, jazz drum­mer Tony Leone and a re­spected Hous­ton-born ses­sion drum­mer named By­ron Isaacs. It was a dis­parate group but when Roger, the bar guy, came up with the idea of mak­ing Sun­day gospel night, a light bulb went on for each of the five.

“A bunch of us had been talk­ing in­de­pen­dently about how cool it would be to put to­gether a band with a lot of singing,” says By­ron Isaacs. “Ba­si­cally, in New York, peo­ple are too busy run­ning around to re­hearse so you just don’t get har­mony singing. So we talked about how fun it would be to have a band with real vo­cal ar­range­ments.”

Even­tu­ally their gospel jams be­came set pieces and it was sug­gested the group make a record. At the end of the ses­sions the record­ing en­gi­neer in­sisted they come up with a bet­ter name than the 9C Gospel Band and Amy Helm sug­gested Ol­la­belle af­ter song­writer and ac­tivist Olla Belle Reed.

The record­ings were sent off to T Bone Bur­nett, then rid­ing high on his O Brother Where Art Thou sound­track suc­cess, and in five days Ol­la­belle was signed to Bur­nett’s la­bel. Be­fore long, they were off tour­ing and shar­ing stages with Diana Krall, Buddy Miller and Alison Krauss.

Ol­la­belle is on their sec­ond, ex­cel­lent River­side Bat­tle Songs album now, pro­duced by T Bone Bur­nett, and while this time out there is much more orig­i­nal ma­te­rial, the ini­tial Ol­la­belle vi­sion, forged in the days af­ter 9/11, still in­forms their mu­sic. Isaacs re­mem­bers it well.

“In the pall that fol­lowed,” he says, “all the mu­si­cians I knew in town sud­denly didn’t want any of this va­pid, happy, fun, ironic bulls--t we had been do­ing. We wanted to play stuff that was about real, hard stuff, you know? So then we found all th­ese gospel tunes that were re­ally un­flinch­ingly deal­ing with death and loss and com­pas­sion. That’s what we’re drawn to.”

Ol­la­belle, whose latest album was pro­duced by T Bone Bur­nett, has toured with Diana Krall and Alison Krauss.

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