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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the August 25, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
New Sounds at Folk Festival
Without realizing it, Lower Manhattan’s Ollabelle may have struck a chord with the 20-somethings. Or even 30 and 40-somethings who have not yet heard these great, classic tunes rendered in a simple fashion. The tunes on Ollabelle’s debut for DMZ/Columbia Records include old spirituals, blues, and traditional folk songs like "Before This Time," "Soul of a Man," and "Jesus On The Mainline." Even the band’s three original tunes on its self-titled debut for DMZ/Columbia sound like they were written ages ago.
Ollabelle performs at the 43rd Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday August 27 through 29, at Old Pool Farm, Schwenksville, Pennsylvania.
"We all sort of come from different backgrounds in this band," explains Ollabelle singer Fiona McBain, 33, who shares vocals with Amy Helm, the daughter of legendary drummer and multi-instrumentalist from the Band, Levon Helm. Ollabelle, named for bluegrass singer Ola Belle Reed, also includes drummer Tony Leone, bassist Byron Isaacs, keyboardist Glenn Patscha and guitarist Jimi Zhivago. All members of the group are good singers, McBain argues, "so you’ll be hearing more singing from the rest of this band on our next album."
McBain, Helm, and the rest of Ollabelle perform on Saturday afternoon. This year’s lineup touches almost all the musical bases: a touch of blues with Chris Smither and Taj Mahal, contemporary singer-songwriters like John Prine and Kris Kirstofferson, the traditional country and blues of Cindy Cashdollar, Celtic music from Natalie MacMaster, ethnic music from Sones de Mexico and Brave Combo, and the rockabilly and roots rock of Bill Kirchen and his trio, Too Much Fun.
McBain’s background includes spending her first 27 years in Sydney, Australia, singing jazz standards there when she was in her early 20s. She came to New York City in 1998. "I sang jazz for a while in Sydney, standards and that stuff, and my parents were jazz fanatics, so I enjoyed listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday growing up," McBain says. "I came to the U.S. at first for fun, but I also wanted to become immersed in American blues and folk music."
Ollabelle has the potential to turn a whole new generation on to the simple-yet-complex beauty of the blues and gospel music. When told this, McBain says simply, "this is the stuff we love, and we’re certainly not doing what hasn’t been done before. That’s why on our record, we list the versions of these old songs that inspired us, like Blind Willie Johnson’s version of ‘Soul of a Man.’ That way, it can be a point of reference for people, so they can go back themselves and hear the older versions of these tunes."
Ollabelle got started two years ago in an informal Sunday night jam session at 9-C, a bar on Avenue C and 9th Street. The group’s members all had other groups and projects they were committed to. But generally, they were free on Sunday nights.
"Everyone was bringing in tunes they wanted to sing, but we’d all been in bands where you couldn’t necessarily sing them," explains Amy Helm, who until recently was singing with her father in his blues group, Levon Helm and the Barnburners. "Fiona was bringing in Carter Family tunes and I was bringing in songs by Mavis Staples," Helm recalls.
‘We tried a song by Nina Simone and a lot of stuff we combed through from the Alan Lomax library," she says. The late folklorist and academic Alan Lomax had a role in recording pioneers of American folk and blues music for the Library of Congress, mostly thanks to his father, music historian John Lomax. Helm adds that the late folk historian, archivist, filmmaker, and activist Harry Smith’s "Anthology of American Folk Music" also played a role in shaping the band’s approach.
"It wasn’t so much that we couldn’t do these tunes with our other bands," Helm explains. "It was just that there was more of a free environment at 9-C. It was a completely free, wide-open jam session there, and there was no thought about making a record. I was trying out songs that I perhaps would be too intimidated to sing in other environments," she says, "and I think Ollabelle grew out of the freedom we had with these songs."
Helm spent her time growing up between homes in New York City and Woodstock, New York. In Woodstock, her father runs a studio out of his house. Most recently, Helm recorded a brilliant album with the Dixie Hummingbirds, "Diamond Jubilation," recorded in studios just north of Atlantic City.
Pressed for memories about growing up with a house and studio full of famous musicians, Helm says, "everything I’ve been doing musically since I began singing I’ve always shared with my dad, and I would get feedback from him. He has given me so much guidance and musical inspiration through the years that I wouldn’t know where to begin in telling you about growing up with him."
Helm majored in psychology at the University of Wisconsin and graduated in 1993. She worked as a teacher in New York City public schools for a time before focusing her efforts on her own singing and songwriting career.
"My dad sort of breathes music, and I think that everybody who gets a chance to work with him and be around him learns something from him," she says. "He’s just a wonderful teacher."
Producer Steve Rosenthal, with whom guitarist Jimi Zhivago works at Stanton Street Records, was so impressed with the band one Sunday night at 9-C that he decided to record them on his own time, for kicks. Rosenthal’s producing credits include everyone from the Rolling Stones to Suzanne Vega.
The band sent its recording to T-Bone Burnett, who produced the soundtrack to the movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" That album became a surprise best seller for Nashville-based Lost Highway Records and created new interest in acoustic blues, gospel, and bluegrass music. Explains Helm: "Jimi took us into the studio to do some demos because Steve was interested. I think if Steve hadn’t been interested, it would have been a year-long run of jams on Sunday nights at 9-C and it probably would have stopped at that, because everybody was caught up in other bands."
The band is still marveling at its good fortune with DMZ/Columbia. The group would have been happy to sign with a smaller record label. "But then Steve Rosenthal said, ‘Let’s make a record.’ We weren’t even considering ourselves a band," says Helm, who since then has obviously changed her tune.
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