by Kate Conner-Ruben
The music of Ollabelle is at once lush and spare. The four men and two women who form this New York City-based group let their blending, bleeding voices rule, backed by restrained accompaniment sometimes just drums, sometimes a hint of organ and bass. The music of Ollabelle is at once faith-based and sexy descriptors which, of course, have never been mutually exclusive. Aussie Fiona McBain's sultry take on the traditional "Elijah Rock" is filled with all kinds of longing. It's a sound that is grounded in history including quite a lot of African American history and allowed to flow in all sorts of interesting, organic directions.
The roots of Ollabelle can be traced to 9C, a funky little bar at Ninth Street and Avenue C on Manhattan's Lower East Side. A welcoming enclave for the city's burgeoning roots music aficionados, 9C started hosting a gospel night a few years back. McBain, Amy Helm, Jimi Zhivago, Glenn Patscha, Byron Isaacs, and Tony Leone all 9C regulars who'd played in a shifting array of New York bands for years found themselves exploring songs they'd never sung before: "Jesus on the Mainline," "Soul of a Man," "John the Revelator," and other gospel chestnuts. It was a soothing sound to a city that had been rocked by unimaginable violence. Soon 9C was mobbed on Sundays, and Ollabelle (named for country singer Ola Belle Reed) was an official entity. Early tracks of its first album made their way to T. Bone Burnett (who'd produced and curated the O Brother, Where Art Thou? CD). Within days, Burnett was on a plane to New York to sign Ollabelle and its eponymous first album with DMZ/
Columbia Records. Fast-forward: Touring. Success. Reviews. Renown.
On the Ollabelle website, McBain speaks of "the history of the music, the care and the thought and the love that's gone into the music. I'd like the music to make people feel good or happy or sad or whatever, but that the music makes them feel something that's deep. It also feels very supportive, like someone's putting a coat around you. There's love and support and warmth."
Well said. And this is definitely comfort-food music: exhilarating and hopeful and filled with the juicy vibrations of thick, slathered-on harmonies. You can hear them for yourself on Monday, October 25, when Ollabelle comes to the Ark.
[Originally published in October, 2004.]
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