13 December 2006

Review: Ollabelle

Union Hall, Brooklyn, 12 December 2006

Made it to Union Hall for the first time last night for one of the unsung heroes of the NYC music scene: Ollabelle. It's rooms like these that make me weep for not living in Brooklyn any more and just getting old in general. It's the kind of room you could probably go to every night irregardless of who's playing. The venue is actually the basement for a too-hip-to-be-true bar which is set up like an old study or library... the kind of place where the men of yore would retire for cognac and cigars and plans for world domination after dinner. Bookshelves and cushy chairs are the norm here, except that this bar has a jukebox that is painfully Pitchfork-ready and indoor bocce courts in the back. The downstairs room is, in a word, intimate. The ceilings are a bit low and the sightlines are a bit obscured by the columns supporting all that boozing Brooklyn bourgeoisie upstairs and yet, still, there isn't much not to like about it. The throw-way-way-back vibe of the bar persists in the basement with a scolding portrait of a rather ugly woman (think female Robin Williams) oversees the stage which is at floor level.

In reality, there could be no more perfect venue for Ollabelle. Although the band came up in the East Village and did their penance in cozy rooms like The Living Room and what is now Banjo Jim's before that, Park Slope lives for bands like Ollabelle and vice versa. For the uninitiated, Ollabelle plays "roots" music. There really isn't a more apt term for what they do than that -- everything they play is rooted in the tradition of American music and is like a history of rock and roll. Their set leans heavily on gospel and spirituals as well as blues and country. Probably the most cited songwriter in the history of recorded music is "Traditional" and whether the songs are 100-year-old classics or, in fact Ollabelle originals, their entire set sounds like it was written by Mr Tradition. And yet, this music is never as alive as when this quintet is on stage. There is something wonderfully ergonomic about these guys, something unbelievably comfortable and natural about the way things fit together around them.

The simplest way to put it would be that they've got great harmony. Yes, their strength is undoubtedly their ability to sing in 2, 3, 4 and even 5-part harmonies. Each member of the group is a powerful vocalist in their own right and when they start joining up in this permutation or that, watch out! The second set of the night began with each song being lead by a different person on vocals, although , of course, everyone else joined in at some point and the whole show kind of moved on from there. So yeah, these guys can throw down with their voices, particularly the two ladies in front: Amy Helm (yes, that Helm) and Fiona McBain. These two could sing lyrics from "Joy of Cooking" and I'd call it a masterpiece, they're that good.

But the harmony comes from a lot more than just their singing. Aside from the occasional whirl from Glenn Patscha on the occasional keyboard solo (which were, as it so happens, the highlights of the show), there isn't a lot of shredding, per se, going on. Instead, the band makes takes a cue from their vocals and play their instruments like their voices, adding pieces to the whole, each guitar strum, drum beat and bass lick a lone ingredient added to the batter. As such, the sound energy emanating from the stage last night was intense. Songs would build so slowly and subtly that you wouldn't even notice that a slow, moving blues was growing into something much more powerful.

The whole show was utter harmonic convergence. The voices mesh perfectly with this "wall of sound" coming from the instruments. The sum of vocals and playing were totally aligned with the material, not to mention the room and the healthy early-weekday crowd. You've heard a lot of these songs before, either in Sunday School or covered by other bands. "Down By the Riverside" starts off in church and ends up cascading pure rock and roll over your ears. "John The Revelator" is a tight-knit mesh of sound rumbling over fantastic keyboards and bass guitar. Perhaps you've thought you've heard pretty darn good versions of "Nobody's Fault But Mine" before, but I assure you nothing could compare to the absolute preaching going on with Helm leading the charge.

That verge of piety and sexiness, of raw emotional energy and purity of soul -- that is where Ollabelle does its best work. Americana has never sounded so kick ass before -- this is the roots of rock and roll as well as rock and roll itself. Perhaps most suprisingly, this band can really groove when it wants to. Songs tend to flip over and allow the backbone of Patscha, Tony Leone on drums and Byron Isaacs on bass to take over. It's a dark kind of funky that gets you moving and yet, the music always seems to be uplifting: not dark and evil, dark and positive energy, if that's even possible.

Despite all these great harmonies top to bottom, I wouldn't necessarily categorize Ollabelle as tight. Thankfully, this translates into a wonderful looseness that kind of gives them some open-ended energy and a sort of fuzziness around the edges. It ain't perfect, but it works well in their own context. Everyone switches up on instruments with Helm mostly singing, but occasionally picking up a mandolin to plug some holes in that wall of sound. McBain plays guitars both acoustic and electric as well as bass as well as that wonderful, "more please!" voice. Perhaps the most appealing instrumentalist is Isaacs who plays mostly bass and then occasionally guitar and lap steel. It's that lap steel that really gets the double take. You know those guitars that are, like, double guitars? Well, Isaacs has a double-necked pedal steel: one for guitar playing and one for bass. I don't think I've ever seen a pedal steel bass before, but, lemme tell you something, it's awesome. It makes a quick appearance in my top 10 coolest instruments and will make it my mission to get more people playing one, so spread the word!!

Ollabelle is always all over town and so I'd urge you to check 'em out. This was the kind of show where you want to leave with CD's and t-shirts and whatever else you can to make sure these guys keep playing music. So, I picked up their newest release and will be sure to share when the time comes. For now, I'll give you a small taste of live Ollabelle and share this video taken of the awesome Tony Leone and handclap-driven "Before This Time"

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