Music: The Gospel of Roots

NYC's Ollabelle plays traditional spirituals with a modern twist

New York's Ollabelle formed by happenstance when the band members found common ground at an every-Sunday-night Gospel jam at a local bar.

Three short years ago, Ollabelle was more a concept than a band. What began as a group of friends assembling for a weekly jam session with no designs on anything more extensive quickly became a bona fide group with a major label contract, a debut album and a fresh new Dub Gospel sound rooted in some of music's oldest traditions and most contemporary sonic innovations.

In early 2002, bartender/talent coordinator Roger Davis had the responsibility of booking acts for 9C, a bar with a rootsy reputation in New York's Lower East Side. He'd already established a Country/Bluegrass singer/songwriter atmosphere with specialty nights at 9C (except for Friday/Saturday Metal nights) and was looking for something special on Sundays when he considered the natural idea of featuring Gospel at the week's end.

"They had a very interesting thing going on," says Ollabelle bassist Byron Isaacs. "Sunday afternoons they'd have an open Bluegrass thing, and when we started we would come in as the Bluegrass people were packing up. Some of them would stick around and play. At first there were a lot more people chiming in."

Vocalist Fiona McBain was already a regular at 9C, as were keyboardist Glenn Patscha and bassist Byron Isaacs, who played in various band incarnations with McBain. Patshca introduced McBain to Amy Helm, another 9C regular and daughter of the Band's Levon Helm, while McBain brought in guitarist Jimi Zhivago.

Jazz drummer Tony Leone was a local scenester who gravitated toward the group.

The sextet, enhanced by various additional players, started off working out songs they all knew, synthesizing old Gospel tunes with everything from Blues to Bluegrass to Country. Because the Sunday night gig was a loose affiliation with a more or less fluid membership, the group never saw the need for a name. But then they started to behave like a "real band."

"It ended up settling into this group of people," Isaacs says. "But for a while there were other people singing with us, and people would get up and play mandolin and banjo and guitars, and it was really kind of a free-for-all. Then Glenn and Fiona and Amy were getting together to work out vocal arrangements on the side. They'd bring in these arrangements on old songs and, because of that, it began to seem like more of a show and more of a band and not a pick-up thing. That's why it ended up tightening up into more of a band. It just naturally took on a shape of its own."

Within months, the aggregation known as the 9C Gospel Band solidified into six constant members. Eventually, they decided a better name was in order and christened themselves after one of their inspirations, traditional Country singer Ola Belle Reed. With a lineup set, a name chosen and a reputation established, all that was left was to maintain the consistency of the band's Sunday night residency, a remarkable feat considering the individual members' other musical obligations.

"Although we all had careers as frontpeople and sidemen ourselves, we all managed to make the time every Sunday," Isaacs says. "In retrospect, I can't believe we were able to do that. I was never able to keep a fixed time in my week ever for anything except for that. In fact, my daughter was born on a Sunday morning and that night I was doing the 9C gig."

Zhivago invited friend and Magic Shop owner Steve Rosenthal to a show, who was moved enough to offer Ollabelle his studio for recording an album on spec. Rosenthal then decided to send the rough mixes to T Bone Burnett, who flew to New York and signed them within days of hearing them, resulting in Ollabelle's self-titled debut on DMZ/Columbia, released last March to great acclaim. (The band is currently at work on their sophomore album.)

Ollabelle's sound is rooted in Bluegrass, Gospel and Folk with a contemporary Ambient texture shimmering through the tradition, like Moby attending Tom Waits' baptism, and their repertoire is a seamless mix of traditional Gospel numbers and brilliantly executed originals. The band's set list — sparked by the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and taking inspiration from Gospel songs they all knew — grew with suggestions from friends and fans and wound up drawing from Alan Lomax's Folk and Blues archives.

"None of us started this thing with the specific intention to evangelize," Isaacs says about Ollabelle's spiritual philosophy. "It's a funny thing to have a Gospel band where the people got together to do the music rather than to preach 'The Word.' It's more open-ended with us. It's got to be something that every listener can believe in."

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Ollabelle's existence is the fact that none of the band's members was particularly schooled in this type of music before they began the Sunday night gigs at 9C. There's nothing on any of their résumés to suggest that the sounds being constructed by Ollabelle would be the natural next step for any of them.

"I guess it just clicked, that's it," Isaacs says. "I don't think any of us could have been able to concoct the idea of this band in their heads. I would have to say there's a certain dynamic with this group of musicians. The music was just really working and singing together was a real joy.

"In New York, there's not that much vocal music happening, especially the scene I was in for a while, the singer/songwriter (scene) where there's just one person singing and they're singing their personal songs. All of us really love vocal harmonies and a lot of our favorite bands have that, so when we got together and we all worked out vocal arrangements and sang them and traded off leads, it was such a rush. It was a kick. And it's fun for the audience to see that, too. We were finally given an avenue to do what we always wanted to do. Sometimes you have to be handed something to realize that's what you wanted."

OLLABELLE performs Saturday at Jack Quinn's Emerald Ballroom in Covington with The Midnight Steppers.

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