The origins of Ollabelle are familiar to anyone who has heard the band. The group started as a Sunday night jam session at an East Village club (9C) updating gospel material with a semi-consistent group of regulars. Once they coalesced into a 6 person lineup, they went into the studio with producer Steve Rosenthal, recorded it on spec and sent it to one record label. The recipient happened to be T-Bone Burnett, who released it on his DMZ label. Legend has it he played 20 seconds of the opening vocal-drums number “Before This Time” to label boss Donny Ienner and the signing was approved on the spot.
I first saw Ollabelle at the old Living Room. That is to say the original home of the Lower East Side club- a small corner storefront. A friend of mine in the business had called me and told me there was this band. They had been signed to a big label, and they needed a manager. I believe Byron Isaacs opened the set playing “Gone Today” on a g-tuned acoustic guitar. Then he switched to bass. I remember hearing Glenn Patscha’s otherworldly voice coming from somewhere, and finally identifying him as the guy sitting facing sideways at the old upright piano. I remember hearing Fiona McBain singing “Elijah Rock” and Amy Helm singing “Soul of a Man.” Whenever I thought I had figured out what this band was about, they threw a new twist at me. 5 singers, 6 instrumentalists. Incredible arrangements of old gospel songs, and a few that they announced as originals.
I was glad I saw the band live, before I got a copy of their debut CD. I loved the CD, but you could see that it was only the starting point. This band had already moved beyond it”adding new dimensions, energy and approach to the songs. The blueprint that producer Steve Rosenthal and the band had come up with was brilliant, but the house they built was even better. There was more singing, better playing and an air of unpredictability. As we started to work together, I knew this was a band that could play anywhere: folk clubs, hippie festivals, jazz clubs, rock festivals.
But the problem with a band that can play a song so many different ways, all brilliant, and all completely in the moment, is trying to figure out what version of that song to actually record. As much as I love both their studio records, those only scratch the surface of what these guys do on stage night after night. So that is why I am glad to be able to help put together this document of Ollabelle playing live. While not definitive, as no single volume could ever be, Before This Time offers snapshots of what you might see if you go see them live.
The journey started with the first major tour. Tapped by T-Bone to join The Great High Mountain Tour (headlined by Alison Krauss & Ralph Stanley and featuring a veritable who’s who of the bluegrass circuit), the band was forced to play in an acoustic configuration.
Drummer Tony Leone had to stand and play percussion, Byron Isaacs switched to upright bass and dobro (an instrument he was surprisingly quickly picking up), Glenn brought his old Navy pump organ, Fiona and Amy already played acoustic guitar and mandola respectively, and Jimi Zhivago broke out an unusual 12 string national steel bodied guitar”possibly the loudest acoustic instrument I’ve heard before or since. To add to the challenge, they had to distill their sound into a 3 song mini set. So they wood-shedded and rearranged all the songs to add more group vocals, and distill them to their essence. On “Ollabelle” you can hear Glenn, Fiona and Amy taking turns singing lead. Now it sounded more like a band.
Each tour they took in that first year on the road expanded the boundaries. With Diana Krall, they had to win over well-heeled couples in huge amphitheatres”and they did. With Ryan Adams, they played to a much younger audience and went over just as well. Everyone they shared the stage with was impressed with Ollabelle’s uncanny combination of technical ability with uncalculated soulfulness. I can’t think of many bands that could serve as able backing bands for both renowned taskmaster Donald Fagen (for a two night stand at Woodstock’s Bearsville Theater) and Levon Helm (at the early versions of the Midnight Ramble.)
When Jimi Zhivago left the band, it left a open guitar chair. Rather than replace him with someone, it has allowed the band to rotate in an impressive cast of characters. Notable names like Larry Campbell, Buddy Miller, Ryan Adams, Charlie Hunter, Oren Bloedow and Dirk Powell have all filled the spot. Larry Campbell represents that approach on this record- featured on three tracks recorded at Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble. In fact, I think this may be the first time Larry ever played guitar with the band. And he soon became a valuable ally. Larry produced Riverside Battle Songs, the band’s second album and joining them as a member of the American Beauty Project— an all star Grateful Dead “tribute”.
But many gigs they played as a five piece. Fiona played more bass, and added electric guitar to her repertoire”playing a dark-toned Supro that looks great, and sounds even better. Amy’s funky rhythm mandolin playing came more to the fore of the arrangements. Byron switched it up”playing electric guitar and lap steel. And even an instrument he invented and constructed himself”The Hydra”a double-neck lap steel, where one neck has 4 bass strings. Glenn added more and more keyboard textures to the mix, and handled most of the solos”stunningly represented on “See Line Woman” on this set. Tony Leone’s drumming simultaneously incorporates his jazz background, and his very deep appreciation for the groove based playing of Al Jackson and others.
This great five piece playing is represented on the tracks recorded at SUNY-Purchase. And like a great basketball team (one that shares the ball” there are no Kobe Bryants in Ollabelle), everyone supports each other.
The versions on Before This Time are great, but by no means the final word on Ollabelle. Every song here could be represented by other versions that take infinitely different approaches. But the textures and beauty of the way the five of them play together are all in full evidence from these tracks.
The tracks from the Ramble, in front of some of the most incredible audiences to see music anywhere, have a different feel. The tracks are loose-limbed and fun” with Larry’s stellar guitar work and the addition of the great horns of Steven Bernstein, Erik Lawrence and Jay Collins.
At Club Helsinki, we include a couple of songs that represent the great cover songs that Ollabelle does. They learned “Brokedown Palace” for the American Beauty Project, a Grateful Dead tribute show that they participated in (and now have become the core band for the touring version).
When the band decided a live album was a good idea, we were lucky to have a friend named Rich Rothenberg who volunteered to bring his recording gear to a number of shows. He captured that incredible Purchase show. And we turned to Edward Haber” a talented engineer and producer (Linda Thompson/Andy Statman etc.) to mix these tracks.
I’m lucky to have seen Ollabelle more times than most people” and in a lot of different contexts: standing in the wings next to Elvis Costello’s mum at Radio City Music Hall (she loved them), in a basketball arena in Tennessee, at Levon’s barn countless times. We don’t have all of that in here” but there is a lot to digest. Listen to this record, their other records” and if you haven’t already– you should get out to where they are playing.