July 10, 2008

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Ollabelle mixes sounds of country and city
Gospel music by way of Brooklyn
By Brian Early bearly@hippopress.com

It’s hard to describe what Ollabelle is. It’s five musicians who started playing gospel numbers together at the 9C nightclub in Brooklyn in an informal manner. They still have a gospel sound with some twang of country. On their MySpace page, www.myspace.com/ollabelle, they also offer the genre of ghettotech. (You’ll find them at www.ollabelle.net, too.)

Whatever they are, they’ve made it big enough to tour with Diana Krall and share a stage with Alison Krauss and Union Station.

There’s no real leader of the band. They all sing, all write songs and all decide together what, where and how to play.

It took time for them to come up with the band’s name. In the beginning, they were informally called the 9C Gospel Band, after the bar they played at on Sundays.

“We made a sport of shooting each other’s name ideas down with the most humorous ways possible. The funniest and the quickest slap-down of each other’s ideas got the biggest laugh,” said Byron Issacs, the band’s bassist. Amy Helm sings and plays the mandola, Tony Leone sings and takes care of drums and percussion, Fiona McBain sings and plays guitars, and Glenn Patscha sings and plays the accordion and keyboards.

And so it went, until they were putting final touches on a recording, and the producer refused to title them the 9C Gospel Band, so the band had to find a different name by the end of the day. A song they recorded was written by Ola Belle Reed. Amy Helm suggested Olabelle.

“We all stopped to figure out how to shoot that down, but nobody came up with anything. It withstood the test,” he said. “If we can’t shoot that down, maybe we’re Ollabelle. So that became our name. Once we figured out the name, we looked into who this Ola Belle really was.”

Turns out, lots of people recorded Ola Belle Reed songs. She wrote hundreds of songs, Issacs said. She was a progressive figure in race and feminism in the South. “She was an unbelievable character,” Issacs said. “Great musician, great song writer.” She died in 2002 at the age of 87. Del McCoury, Marty Stuart and Tim O’Brien all recorded her music. She also raised 20 abandoned children, he said, who the band got to meet at the Ola Belle Festival that occurs in North Carolina.

“She’s an incredible, dynamic figure. Then we were really proud to have her name,” he said. “But we didn’t know how great she was when we took the name.”

On July 17, they play a free show at Veteran’s Park, off Elm Street, in Manchester, part of the Thursday Night Live Series produced by Intown Manchester.

They’re working on their third album with T Bone Burnett, who signed them to his label, DMZ/Columbia shortly after hearing the band. Their first album, self-titled, was mostly traditional gospel; their second, released in 2006, Riverside Battle Songs, was the opposite, and Issacs said that’s the direction of the third, which probably won’t be out until next spring.

Much of the fun of the band, he said, is the way they play songs: “You’ll never hear the same performance twice.”

The band isn’t known for rehearsals, he said. Often, if they add a new song, they’ll work it out right before a show.

“We just pull it out and see what happens,” he said.


Hear it live
Ollabelle, Thursday Night Live Concerts
Where: Veteran’s Park, off Elm Street, Manchester
Where: Thursday, July 17, at 7 p.m.
Cost: free
More info: www.ollabelle.net.