Ollabelle, at WAMC, sing and play better than ever

by Michael Hochanadel

Music Review from the Daily Gazette (Schenectady, NY), Tuesday, September 26, 2006. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

ALBANY -- Ollabelle was an impressive work in progress in previous area shows at the Bearsville Theatre in 2003 (with the Jayhawks) and at The Egg last year (with Buddy Miller), but they were impressive all the way and on their own at WAMC on Monday.

Last year, they were absorbing the departure of guitarist Jimi Zhivago, but swapping instruments allowed them to cover all the bases. They sang and played better than ever on Monday, individually and together, introducing new songs from their second album Riverside Battle Songs and adding complexity and dynamics to songs from their 2004 debut Ollabelle.

New songs started Monday's 90-minute show, "Gone Today," starting slowly and quietly over a sparse beat and everybody singing, "High On a Mountain" (by namesake Olla Belle Reed) rocking behind fine harmonies, and the doomstruck "See Line Woman" mourning a prostitute's lonely death, before "Elijah Rock" from the first album, Fiona McBain delivering tremendous drama.

Keyboardist Glenn Patscha joked early on that all their songs were about death, but nonetheless are suitable for parties as well as for wakes. But Ollabelle would kill the audience anywhere: church, blues bar, rodeo, or rock arena. On "Last Lullabye," Patscha's piano and drawling vocal evoked the great Delaney and Bonnie and Friends; and while solo vocals were strong, even drummer Tony Leone got his chance at the mike, they were also rare. Ollabelle often sang something like The Band (with most of its classic songs sung by Amy Helm's father Levon), with everybody hitting the right notes but pushing and pulling the beat.

Gospel tunes dominated their first album, but not the second, and they balanced their material as skillfully as they performed it on Monday. "Fall Back" was a kinetic backbeat shuffle that packed an infectious R&B punch, while "Ain't No More Cain on the Brazos" was about as rural as could be. Some Gospel numbers were serene: "Heaven's Pearls" felt like a prayer in multi-instrumentalist Byron Isaacs' angelic voice. But they also conjured the apocalypse in the devastating, noisy "John the Revelator," which has deepened in mystery and might since it spooked fans of the first album.

Helm has grown remarkably as both writer and performer after apprenticing in blues bands with her father.

In "Everything Is Broken," her images of sadness and loss were heartbreaking. But most impressively, she turned this tune over to McBain to sing, and it was perfect for McBain's brassy power. In the pastoral "Northern Star," which Helm co-wrote with Isaacs, she sang as beautifully as Shelby Lynne. In a lovely, reimagined "Down By the Riverside," everybody sang wonderfully -- alone, in harmony, in counterpoint, carrying the crowd with them far into the land of goosebumps and hushed awe. Ollabelle is five skilled musicians, but what had been missing previously was chemistry. They recorded their first album early in their creative lives together, and it was pretty good: technically polished and sincere. Just as their second album represents a huge leap, so does their live show.