The first talking point you’ll usually hear about NY’s Ollabelle is that they feature the voice of Amy Helm, daughter of the incomparable Levon Helm, drummer, vocalist, and mandolinist for The Band. Several of Ollabelle’s members perform in the Levon Helm Band, alongside Larry Campbell, at Levon’s weekly Midnight Rambles at his barn/studio in Woodstock. Ollabelle played a large part in Levon’s two comeback albums, Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, and they also backed Jim White on his 2008 album Transnormal Skiperoo.
On their own, though, Ollabelle forge a unique identity, above the cluttered NY revival scene and proudly beside their bloodline to The Band — an impressive feat because they do it in mostly traditional song forms, folk and gospel. In 2004, T-Bone Burnett produced their self-titled debut album. Larry Campbell manned the 2006 follow-up, Riverside Battle Songs. Their third offering, Neon Blue Bird, took years to complete while members of the band started families, but the result is no less coherent or rewarding for it. The band features four strong songwriters — Helm, Glenn Patscha, Fiona McBain, Byron Isaacs — and a stronger eye for choosing covers, so their albums have always been varied, flowing between swampy gospel and blue-eyed soul, with an emphasis on vocal harmonies.
Of the original compositions, Glenn Patscha’s “One More Time” is my favorite — just acoustic guitar, drums, upright bass, and mandolin, with some piano fills. Though Ollabelle used this stripped-down set-up successfully on Riverside Battle Songs, other than “One More Time,” Neon Blue Bird takes more electric turns (as per the title). Fiona McBan’s “Wait for the Sun” is Dusty Springfield revisited. Byron Isaac’s “Brotherly Love” is a hilarious gospel trip about how aspiring towards social fraternity might be aiming a little low. “I’m sure you know the old fable / about Cain and little Abel,” he reminds.
On Neon Blue Bird, out of all the songs in the world, the cover tunes that emerge are inspired and unexpected: Paul Kelly‘s (the American, not the Australian) “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” “Lovin’ in my Baby’s Eyes” by blues lifer Taj Mahal, and “Dirt Floor” by the chameleonic Chris Whitley. But they all sound original in Ollabelle’s hands. Traditional songs “Be Your Woman,” “Butcher Boy,” and a warm take on Steven Foster’s “Swanee River” round-out the album.
You can use textural diction to describe Ollabelle’s music: it’s harmonic and doesn’t want for loneliness; it’s thick, frenzied, almost suffocating on the gospel tracks; comfortable, familial on the folk ones. But, simply, it’s just gorgeous. I’ve found listening to Ollabelle albums to be an experience I don’t have with other albums. Not to wax too Moeller, but it’s an experience like neon, rare and extracted from the air. A glowing, gaseous album of Essential Listening.