Ollabelle came together because of these musicians’ love of this music, without thought of success or career or any of the other trappings of the modern professional music business. It has great value to our culture, adding new life to a tradition that is an important part of who we are. But mostly, they sound great. They sing great and they play great, and they are wonderful people. -T-Bone Burnett
Amy Helmvocals, mandola
Byron Isaacsvocals, bass, dobro
Tony Leonevocals, drums, percussion
Fiona McBainvocals, acoustic and electric guitars
Glenn Patschavocals, keyboards, accordion
A collection of songs of hard times, loss, compassion and hope” is how Fiona McBain describes Riverside Battle Songs, Ollabelle’s second album and Verve Forecast debut. The 13-song set finds the New York quintet building upon the foundation of its self-titled 2004 debut, drawing from a deep well of gospel, blues, bluegrass, and country influences to create timelessly resonant music that honors the integrity of its sources while remaining effortlessly contemporary.
A multi-talented, democratic collective whose participants share vocal and songwriting duties, Ollabelle gains strength from its members’ shared sense of mission, as well as their diverse musical and personal backgrounds. Although the group initially began as a casual sideline to the musicians’ individual projects, it quickly evolved into a full-time creative entity with an unmistakable life of its own.
Where Ollabelle’s gospel-steeped debut album emphasized distinctive adaptations of traditional material, Riverside Battle Songs produced by veteran producer/multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, best known for his lengthy stint in Bob Dylan’s band, and mixed by longtime admirer T Bone Burnett showcases the group’s own compositions. Such memorable originals as “Heaven’s Pearls,” “Fall Back,” “Dream the Fall,” “Blue Northern Lights” and “Reach for Love” offer subtly riveting examples of the bandmates’ vocal and instrumental interplay, mining an evocative palette of acoustic and electric textures to create singularly expressive music.
Another highlight is a haunting reworking of the bluegrass standard “High On A Mountain”a song written by the band’s namesake, legendary rural songstress Ola Belle Reed, a key inspiration in their formative days. The group also brings fresh perspective to the traditional classic “Riverside” (aka “Down by the Riverside”), whose message of hope and redemption serves as the album’s thematic centerpiece.
Riverside Battle Songs reflects the substantial growth that Ollabelle has undergone since recording their debut effort. “The new record, to me, sounds more like us,” says McBain. “When we made the first one, we weren’t really a band, and our collaboration was new and a little timid. Now, three years down the track, there’s been a natural evolution in both the music and our personal relationships, and I think that you can hear that on this record.”
The band credits the new album’s confident vibe to the extensive roadwork that followed their first release. “The first album was made by a group of people who were just getting to know each other, personally as well as musically,” Tony Leone notes. “But Riverside Battle Songs is a strong representation of where we are now, and who we are as writers, singers and players.”
Riverside Battle Songs’ compelling songcraft and organic performances demonstrate the potent musical and personal rapport that continues to fuel Ollabelle’s creative process. The group originally grew out of an informal assemblage of singers and players who came together to play traditional gospel songs at a weekly jam at the East Village bar 9C. That event became a welcome source of positivity amidst the darkness that hung over downtown Manhattan in the months following September 11, 2001.
All five Ollabelle members had come from varied backgrounds and geographical locations to make music in New York City, and had crossed paths or worked together in various combinations. Woodstock-bred Amy Helm came had a long history singing in blues combos. Byron Isaacs had worked as bassist with a variety of artists while pursuing his own songwriting efforts. Tony Leone had an extensive resume as a jazz drummer. Fiona McBain had moved to New York from Sydney, Australia and had begun to win attention as a solo singer/songwriter. Canadian-born Glenn Patscha had long been active in the New Orleans music scene.
Although all five were pursuing individual projects at the time, their musical affinity evolved into a solid band chemistry, and the group (which at the time also included guitarist Jimi Zhivago) quickly gained a local reputation for its exuberant live sets. They recorded their debut album on spec at a local studio, and the project won the attention of renowned artist/producer T Bone Burnett, who was impressed enough to release Ollabelle on his Sony-distributed DMZ label.
The debut disc won massive critical acclaim, as did tours with Diana Krall, Ryan Adams and Buddy Miller. Ollabelle also won new fans via a high-profile slot on the Burnett-organized Great High Mountain Tour, which saw Ollabelle share stages with such prestigious roots acts as Alison Krauss and Union Station, Ralph Stanley and Norman and Nancy Blake.
Like its predecessor, Riverside Battle Songs eschews extraneous production frills in favor of spare arrangements that showcase the substance of the band’s vocal and instrumental interaction. The album’s birth cycle began in November 2004, when the quintet retreated to Woodstock to work on new material, living and writing communally in a rented house and cutting rough demos in a studio-equipped barn owned by Amy’s father, legendary singer/drummer Levon Helm of The Band.
“We wrote together around the fire, the kitchen table, early in the morning and late at night,” McBain recalls.” Then we came back to Brooklyn and made demo recordings at my house. We started with about 30 songs, and when Larry Campbell got involved, we culled it down to about 17 and started working on those in April 2005. It’s been a long road to get the record done, but I think that the effort was worthwhile.”
“I think that this record truly shows who we are as a band,” Leone states. “With five people contributing words, music, voices and ideas, that’s always a lot of opinions to filter into one brew, but I think we’re all pretty proud of the end result. Having Larry Campbell on board was a real privilege, and his involvement was vital in the arrangements and the realization of each tune. We did a lot of pre-production work with him, and he had the difficult task of being the conduit for everyone’s ideas and opinions. Every song was put through the shredder and built up and torn down numerous times, including some that we had been playing live for a couple of years.”
The intimate immediacy of the band’s performances is well suited to the emotional gravity of their new material. “I think that there’s an undercurrent of reckoning with loss and adversity in this group of songs,” Patscha observes, adding, “To me, they’re all battle songs. Life isn’t easy, and the good things in life are truly worth fighting for. The tricky part is that these big battles happen within every person, not across the street or across the ocean. At the end of the day, we will all wind up by that river and will have to reckon with our own truths. And I think the title of the album reflects an admiration for those people that have had the courage to write and sing about those truths.”
As Riverside Battle Songs makes clear, Ollabelle has matured into a one-of-a-kind ensemble with an uncanny ability to communicate such heady truths in a manner that’s both accessible and inspiring.
“The gestation period for this record has been so long that we can’t wait to go out and play these songs,” McBain enthuses. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this band, it’s that it continues to grow in its own unpredictable direction, and we’re eager to get out and share that with people.”
“The band is still constantly changing, and we never play the songs the same way twice,” says Patscha. “We try our damndest to be honest with each other and to the music, and I like to think that people can hear that. We’re still basically a group of friends who love to play music together. At the end of the day, the greatest reward for a musician is the feeling that people are truly listening, and returning a feeling to complete the cycle. What a gift it is that we get to experience that feeling through this band.”