David Bromberg, Ollabelle Rock Portland’s Aladdin Theater Sept. 16, 2011
I ran into Ollabelle‘s Byron Isaacs and Glenn Patscha through a mutual friend, Brian Cullman, who I met because of a blog I posted on a mutual musical favorite, Nick Holmes. All of those names have come to mean a lot to me because they are people who believe, as I do, that the music business needs word of mouth to work. Ollabelle formed out of the love of music first and the need to play second, or so it seems to me. When the opportunity to see them live presented itself, I begged a ticket from the band and headed to Portland to see what I thought would be a night of Ollabelle. When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to see that David Bromberg was headlining. It was a hell of a night. When I see shows like this, I have to write. Here’s my take:
Dateline: September 17, 2011. Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. Up-and-comers Ollabelle rode the coattails of guitar impresario David Bromberg into Portland, Oregon’s Aladdin Theater last night and turned the town on its ear. Rather than give the Bromberg constituents one and then the other, the two forces threw together a hurricane of musical force, close to three hours worth. Like they would say in Variety, “Boffo!” Or something to that effect.
So Walter Winchell might have announced the September 16th show at the Aladdin the next morning in his syndicated column, were he still with us. It was “boffo”. It was even better than that. It was a party.
But first, allow me to set the scene. The Aladdin sits a door off of the busy traffic conduit of Powell Boulevard in Southeast Portland on SE Milwaukie, a two-lane trip into a mixture of past and present, the neighborhood a potpourri of hippie and blue collar with mere hints of money here and there. At one time, Milwaukie was a somewhat main thoroughfare, a connection between Portland and the Gladstone/Oregon City area, but is now a small paved road connecting small communities, rural in the midst of city. The Aladdin sits on the very edge of city as is evidenced by the volume of traffic on Powell, but all one must do is close the ears and face away from Powell to feel the pull of the past.
The theater readerboard lists David Bromberg because he is, indeed, the main draw, but Ollabelle follows. A walk towards the ticket window presents multiple posters advertising musical acts, all upcoming— Pat Metheny, UFO, Montrose, Basia. The doors to the theater are plastered with Bromberg posters with one solitary and small Ollabelle poster to the right. Washed in blue, they stand in a pose, very natural but very focused. In another hour or so, I would see them strike similar poses— sans Amy Helm who had other important duties to perform as wife and mother— only with instruments in hand.
The box office was doing brisk business handling ticket sales to Bromberg as well as future shows and taking care of will-call and the guest list. The line was already long, curving from the window all the way past Classic Pianos, the store next door, housing a number of just that— classic pianos. A quick glance told me that the audience’s mean age was probably fifty or so, hair colors mostly gray, men sporting long ponytails if not balding. My people, I suppose, for my hair grayed long ago, and more social and gregarious than myself, though not more anxious than I to see and hear the band and the music.
When they opened the doors, it was a rush to get in, which told me that either most had to use the facilities or it was open seating. Turns out it was the latter, though I wondered because as I entered, there was already a lo-o-ong line at the counter where they were serving up Lagunitas and Mirror Pond ales along with a wide variety of wines, all by the glass— erm, plastic cup. Before long, the crowd, which had grown tremendously, was abuzz with activity. Looking around, I saw that these were, indeed, mostly my people, ancient by today’s standards, home-fed on vinyl but willing to switch formats at will. Androids and iPhones lit up the theater, people checking messages or sending them, as attached to their lifelines as any fourteen year old kid. The ones who eschewed the electronic attachment reverted to their old ways, talking loudly so as to be heard above the growing noise. As anxious as most were for the party to begin, they had wine and ale and Bromberg in common and attached themselves each other. I sat in the upper right corner of the theater, watching, knowing I had lost most of my social skills and hoping I would never have a need to use them again.
On the inside, the Aladdin is an old theater as much given to vaudeville as well as movies. The deep stage would have been suitable for dancers and jugglers and any of the acts of that period and the wings were the wings of Hollywood through which actors would enter and exit, stage left, as it were. The purple backdrop, lit sparsely, was a perfect backing for the equipment strewn in front— Byron Isaacs‘ bass setup to the right (my right, their left) and just to the right of Tony Leone‘s drum set. An amp to the left of the drums sat alone and then there was the keyboard setup of Glenn Patscha on the far left— keyboards stacked and plugged into an amp, a guitar on a stand to Glenn’s right (actually, his left). That lone amp next to the drums I was to discover belonged to Fiona McBain, as did the microphone and stand placed directly in front. There was a cozy feel and music made its way through the PA system, just loud enough to occasionally interfere with the gravelly beehive of noise in the crowd.
When the lights went down, the sweaters and coats and flannel shirts (this is Portland, after all) took to their seats and the theater went totally black, the only lights courtesy of the exit signs and the Androids still percolating news from the outside world. To its credit, the crowd hushed quickly and waited patiently. A few moments later, a flashlight appeared and guided the bad members to their posts. A few plunks and thuds later, it was “Ladies and Gentlemen, Ollabelle…” and the lights went up with the first notes of Chris Whitley‘s Dirt Floor, a combination of rock, country and gospel and a song from their new album, Neon Blue Bird. The sharp, loud and muddy sound quickly gave way to balance as the vocals and instruments plowed their way through the mixing board on their way to the PA Speakers, Voice of the Theater-type boxes stacked high on both sides of the stage. By the end of the second song, Byron Isaacs‘ Brotherly Love, the sound was down and the band was cooking with gas.
Brian Cullman, who has in the past worked with the band collectively and individually, had warned me. These guys are really, really good, he had said, but live they are even better. I needed no convincing. As they worked their way through their all too short set list, I heard songs, original and otherwise, which almost defied genre (which many musicians and writers use as a holding cell for the term “Americana”). There are underlying patterns, of course, like folk and gospel and blues, but Ollabelle twisted them into configurations all their own. Even Taj Mahal‘s Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes, arranged very similar to Taj’s version, stood out. The band worked their way through the set carefully, giving the audience time to adjust between songs. Not all the songs were original, the aforementioned Mahal song an example, but even the least original, the traditional Down By the Riverside, came out clean and fresh. You have to have something to pull off a song like that (unless you are backed by full gospel choir), and they have it. They have a full range of voices (even without the superb voice of Amy Helm— I can only imagine what it would have sounded like with her there) and an ability to arrange songs to sound new while retaining their structures. And they can play! Man, can they play! Patscha is a monster on the keyboards and can play a mean guitar as well, drummer Tony Leone is rhythm perfect on the drums and might probably be a bit more out front with his guitar if he wasn’t surrounded by the talent within the band (he can sing, too). Byron Isaacs makes me appreciate bass players even more than I have in the past, his playing seemingly effortless, though anyone who plays know that it is not. And Fiona McBain? Please forgive my dinosaur ways, but when I was growing up in music, women did not play the way they do today. They strummed and, even then, mostly on acoustic guitars. Well, McBain turned the acoustic into a musical instrument and when she plugged in the electric, my heart soared. Not since seeing Devon Sproule work her magic on guitar on the handful of live videos I have seen via YouTube have I heard the crisp, emotion-laden riffs McBain laid down behind the music. She was high-heeled refreshment, and I was not the only one who thought so. Us dinosaurs evidently think alike.
The audience gave Ollabelle a decent round of applause at the end of their set, probably lessened by the number of people needing to relieve themselves of or get even more drinks. I laid back and accepted the respectful handclaps. These were, after all, David Bromberg‘s people and he was who most were there to see, though one could hear from the crowd that Ollabelle had made some inroads.
When Bromberg finally made his appearance, much of the crowd was surprised to see Ollabelle there as well. Bromberg had made his way onto the stage during that opening set, I have been remiss of saying, adding an extremely tasteful electric lead and bonus rhythm guitar to many of the band’s songs. This time, though, he was there for himself.
What can I say about my first time seeing Bromberg except that he is Attitude on the Hoof. He grabbed the mic and took over and the crowd loved it, as did Ollabelle. He blasted his way through songs from his new album as well as a handful of his old standards and was having a ball. He was self-deprecatingly funny in a laugh out loud way and you could almost see him making his way on the standup comedy circuit, still with guitar in hand. And he obviously loved playing. He loved playing with Ollabelle, making the comment as the band left the stage in the middle of the set, making way for his acoustic songs— “Great fucking band, huh?” The crowd agreed.
Bromberg’s set totaled almost two hours, most with band, and by the time the concert ended, the musicians and crowd were a bit worn. They still wanted, and got, an encore, but Bromberg is no spring chicken (nor am I) and the theater pulled the plug. The party was over and, unlike in the days of my youth, I was going home, eardrums intact. No ringing, no throbbing head, just memories of a great night of music.
I waited around because I had promised to say hello to Patscha and Isaacs, for whose solo albums I had written reviews. I chatted with Glenn for a bit before the phone rang and it was Isaacs, trying to find me. We headed next door to The Lamp for a quick drink and chat, Leone and McBain making their way there a bit later. They were both fried, having had little rest over the past thirty-two hours or so. Obstacles had been strewn in their path as they made their way from East Coast to West— dropping a child off at Grandma’s, going to the wrong airport, missing their flight when they finally arrived at the correct one, etc. They looked exhausted and I wondered how they could have made it through close to three hours of musical intensity without collapsing, but they did.
When their equipment had been loaded into the truck, we said our goodbyes. I had a two hour drive myself and was feeling a bit jetlagged. As I drove away, Dirt Floor was going through my head and it repeated itself until I found my way to the freeway, before which time I had pulled off the road and plugged my mp3 player into the car’s sound system. It was Neon Blue Bird, Patscha’s Songs From the Jefferson Highway and Isaacs’ Disappearing Man all the way home. I made a mental note to pick up a Fiona McBain album. And the rest of Ollabelle‘s albums. I might end up homeless, but I will damn well have the best record collection of any homeless guy out there. And, yes, I called them records. They will always be that to me, regardless of format.