Ollabelle – Greenwich Gospel
Not every rock band would stand onstage in a packed club on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and sing, “Jesus is the man I’m looking for/So can you tell me just where he’s gone.”
But then, not every gospel band would break into an impromptu chorus of Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” during a soundcheck.
Really, calling Ollabelle either a rock band or a gospel band (or a gospel-rock band, for that matter) is entirely too limiting. “This band is so young,” says Amy Helm, one of the sextet’s several singers. “For all I know, our next record might be a heavy metal cover band. I see this band exploring a lot of different genres.”
By “young,” she doesn’t mean the ages of its members, who are mostly in their early 30s. And Helm allows that she’s kidding about the heavy metal. But her comment reflects the somewhat accidental nature of Ollabelle’s origins. What started just over two years ago as a casual weekly gospel sing-along at an East Village bar has turned into a full-time affair. The band’s self-titled debut, which they recorded on their own, was picked up by T Bone Burnett’s DMZ/Columbia imprint and is due out in March.
“We had no expectations for this,” says Glenn Patscha, who plays a variety of keyboards (including a wheezing Wurlitzer) and sings. “We were just trying to make the most beautiful record possible. And it became something else.”
The result is a collection of mostly traditional gospel numbers, along with a few originals, that melts down blues, folk and country influences into what Patscha — a Canadian who spent several years in New Orleans — aptly calls a gumbo. Guitarist Jimi Zhivago adds weeping leads where appropriate, along with a range of Edge-like atmospherics; Patscha and bassist Byron Isaacs show off a working knowledge of funk; and drummer Tony Leone’s polyrhythms hint at his jazz background but pack the wallop of swampy R&B. Fronting it all are Helm and Fiona McBain, an Australian singer-songwriter whose folky timbre offsets Helm’s brassy belting.
The fullness of the band’s sound comes from a seemingly endless combination of harmonies. An hour-long live set begins with all of them singing a cappella, and five of the six take at least one lead vocal during the show. They also trade off instruments — Zhivago playing piano, McBain playing bass, Isaacs playing steel guitar — with a freewheeling dexterity that suggests a skilled and spirited hootenanny. Which is more or less how Ollabelle started.
All six were regulars at a now-defunct bar called 9C (after its location, at 9th Street and Avenue C). “When I first came to New York, I met people who took me to 9C,” recalls McBain, who arrived from Sydney in 1999. “It was a real alt-roots scene. People when they came into town — Lucinda Williams’ band, Jimmy Lauderdale, Hank III — whenever they came to town, they went to 9C.”
A bartender and music fan named Roger Davis presided over the bar’s calendar, booking bluegrass nights, old-time music and singer-songwriters who caught his fancy.
“It had this great roadhouse feel,” Patscha says. “It was an anomaly. It was kind of like a Tennessee or Texas roadhouse in the middle of the East Village. And the way people interacted there, too, was very un-New York.”
“Yeah,” McBain agrees, “it was very much ‘get up and sing.'”
The future members of Ollabelle met through the scene’s overlapping circles. Patscha and Helm (who is the daughter of The Band drummer Levon Helm) had known each other in New Orleans, and Patscha had been in a band with Zhivago. McBain and Isaacs also had played together.
But the catalyst came in the months after September 11, 2001, when bartender Davis decided to start a weekly gospel jam on Sunday nights. An odd move for a bar decorated with girly magazine centerfolds, perhaps, but at the time it made sense. The gospel canon, with its unflinching recognition of death and suffering but also its joy in living, was freshly relevant. “All of a sudden, everyone was reminded of their mortality,” Patscha recalls of the atmosphere in Manhattan at that time.
Out of the gospel night came two things. First, the musicians discovered that the more they played the music, the more they wanted to play it. Friends turned them on to the whole range of the American spiritual tradition: Blind Willie Johnson, the Carter Family, Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers. (One discovery, the Appalachian banjo picker Ola Belle Reed, inspired the band’s name, though they spell it differently.)
Second, every week the crowds got bigger and the sing-alongs got louder. “It came out of a gospel night in an East Village divey bar, that was the whole thing about it,” Isaacs says. “It was that kind of contradiction that made it so popular.”
“That’s why we could get away with doing gospel songs and singing about Jesus,” McBain adds. “No one thought you were too heavy-handed, because you were surrounded by Playboy pinups.”
Zhivago was friends with Magic Shop recording studio owner Steve Rosenthal — they co-owned an indie label, Stanton Street Records — and he eventually convinced the rest of the band to make a demo. “We sort of went in to document it because we knew that it wasn’t going to last,” Isaacs says.
But Rosenthal, who produced the sessions, was impressed enough to suggest playing the tracks for Burnett, whom he knew. It was good timing. Burnett, fresh off the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, had earned some latitude for his DMZ label. Five days later, Rosenthal called Zhivago and said, “Are you sitting down?” Burnett wanted to sign the band, sight unseen, on the strength of the recording.
The album doesn’t entirely capture the soaring spirit of Ollabelle’s live show, but it comes close. The band deliberately used vintage microphones and amps (and, well, yes, ProTools too), and did minimal overdubbing. The disc also features an all-star guest: Helm’s father, who plays drums on one track. But you won’t find him mentioned in Ollabelle’s official bio; nobody wants the group to get tagged as “Levon Helm’s daughter’s band.”
“I’m really proud of my dad,” says Helm, who sang in a blues band with her father for a few years in the 1990s. “I love him and I really admire him, and I’m really proud of his musicality and his accomplishments, obviously. But I just sort of want to have the focus be on this unit and this group.”
The band presents itself as a partnership of equals — a democracy, albeit “a democracy with the gloves off,” as Isaacs puts it. That ideal is often espoused and rarely achieved, but the members of Ollabelle have the advantage of working largely with material for which they can feel joint ownership — or, maybe more accurately, joint custody. Their reverence for the music feels sincere; on the album, they are careful to credit not only authorship when it’s known, but also which version inspired their interpretation.
On the other hand, they are hardly purists. Unlike the reverent period pieces of O Brother, Ollabelle’s arrangements range from approximate traditionalism to fuzztone wig-outs (most notably on “John The Revelator”, which sounds more like latter-day Tom Waits than Son House). In some ways, their approach recalls what Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span did with British folk music, updating the settings but preserving the melodies and spirit.
And what about that spirit? These are, after all, avowedly Christian songs, but being played in clubs rather than churches, blurring the lines between Saturday night and Sunday morning. For a band about to release an album full of songs such as “Jesus On The Mainline” and “Elijah Rock”, the members visibly squirm a little when asked about their own faiths.
“We’re all over the map,” Patscha says cautiously, “and our experiences with these songs come from such different places. I mean, in New Orleans, it’s funny — a lot of these songs I learned down there that are explicitly religious songs aren’t considered explicitly religious. Brass bands play ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ or ‘Down By The Riverside’ because in New Orleans, those are the tunes you play.”
Helm draws a distinction between singing, say, secular blues and the songs in the Ollabelle repertoire. “My intention changes, as a singer,” she explains. “I feel more responsible for doing it from the right place and for the right reasons. It’s easier to shed yourself and explore the songs in your own context, your own inner life, and explore doubt, and faith, and everything you feel in terms of your relationship to the divine.
“I’ve sung in a gospel choir in New Orleans,” she continues, “and been at those shows that were very specific gospel gigs, where some edge of your performance is preaching. Not necessarily in a bad way, but people are there to believe, and to share stories about that belief. In some ways, we have a wider range. You have more space with the audience to explore those things, because you’re not coming from a place of complete conviction. One night you might really not know if you believe in anything. Even if you go to church and you’re very disciplined with your religion, everybody doubts every day. So I think that there’s more ways to play with that stuff, with the way that this music has come about.”
The lack of certainty makes sense in the context of Ollabelle’s formation. The September 11 attacks, after all, were partly acts of religious fervor. In responding, the band wanted to be anything but evangelical.
“What’s going on with religion in America,” Isaacs observes, “it seems like there are a lot of very clearly drawn lines that, if you speak to people individually and let them open up, are actually not so strongly drawn.”
The music might be Christian, but the messages are universal. Isaacs quotes the poet Carl Sandburg, who said the worst word in the English language was “exclusive” — because, Sandburg asserted, “by that word, we wall other people out.”
As for Ollabelle, Isaacs concludes: “We’re anti-exclusive.”