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