Right off the bat I'm going to say that this was not my favorite Ollabelle concert. That's not to say I didn't have a rocking great time, but more an acknowledgement of the fact that this was three-fifths Ollabelle, not the full quintet. Neither Tony Leone (drums) or Amy Helm (vocals, mandola) were with the band for their Boston stop, and I missed them both. Tony's drums wouldn't have fit on Passim's postage stamp of a stage anyway, and Amy gets a pass as she is home with a new baby. But a significant part of the Ollabelle repertoire can't be performed without those two, including the signature knock-you-back-in-your-seat Before This Time, and The Band-channelling Cane on the Brazos. (Tony regularly plays with the Levon Helm Band, and Amy is Levon's daughter, so channelling The Band comes naturally.)
Ollabelle, for those not paying close attention, is best described as a NYC-formed urban, gospel, roots, harmony band named after roots music pioneer Ola Belle Reed (1916-2002). Besides Tony and Amy, the other three members are Fiona McBain on vocals and guitars, Byron Isaacs on vocals and bass, and Glenn Patscha on vocals and keyboards. Early in their career they were taken under the wing of T-Bone Burnett.
On Thursday night the band was joined by singer-songwriter Martha Scanlan on vocals and guitar, and everybody's favorite Boston-based session guitarist, Duke Levine. You may have never heard of Duke, but his collaboration resume includes Peter Wolf, Otis Rush, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, Aimee Mann, Kathy Mattea, Sleepy LaBeef, Ellis Paul, Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, and Susan Werner - just to name a few!
The first set lacked a little energy for my tastes. Starting with the opening song, Fiona's rendering of the traditional gospel Elijah Rock, there just wasn't the pin-you-back-in-your-seat feel. Could this be partially due to Fiona being well along in her pregnancy? (Word has it the baby is due in April.) Could it be getting used to Martha and Duke? Who knows, but I noticed that Elijah Rock didn't quite rock with the force it normally has. They did jam it out nicely, but just a bit softer than I'm used to.
My reaction to the first set could also be influenced by the new songs they are trotting out. The band recently rented out a house in upstate New York, turned it into a recording studio, and went on a writing binge (shades of Big Pink!). New songs were sprinkled throughout the night, including Glenn's One More Time, and Fiona's Remember to Forget - both in the first set.
Martha's singing style was also a factor. She was nearly whisper quiet, even on her own songs. I found myself alternatively struggling to hear her lyrics, and wanting the sound man to add more vocals to the house mix. To be fair to Martha, she sings and plays with intense feeling, and simply brought the house down with her lead vocals on Abilene in the second set.
Not to mention that watching the guitar interplay between Martha and the incredible Duke Levine was a highlight throughout the night. You could tell how much Martha was enjoying Duke's playing, with her eyes closed and head bent in his direction, a look of bliss on her face.
Oh, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Byron was playing a stunningly beautiful stand up bass. It was so fitting for the small room and tiny stage.
Although the band is writing more and more songs, we were still treated to a good smattering of traditional songs, one Ola Belle Reed song (I've Endured, sung by Fiona), a Buddy Holly treat (Raining in my Heart, also sung by Fiona), and a simply gorgeous and harmonious rendering of Garcia and Hunter's Ripple (Fiona on lead vocals).
While they may have started slow, Ollabelle found its voice in the second set, and we left very satisfied.
Photo note: I took all the photos you see on this page with my trusty Canon Rebel, and you can see the full photo set on Flickr.
Ollabelle, with Martha Scanlan & Duke Levine
Club Passim, Cambridge, MA
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Elijah Rock (Traditional)
One More Time
Remember to Forget
John the Revelator (Traditional)
Seeds of the Pine (Martha Scanlan)
I Don't Even Have to Ask (Martha Scanlan)
Jesus on the Mainline (Traditional)
I've Endured (Ola Belle Reed)
Raining in My Mind
Blue Northern Lights
The West Was Burning (Martha Scanlan)
Raining in my Heart (Buddy Holly)
Get Back Temptation
Ripple (Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia)
Encore: ? (I feel like such a slacker for not recognizing the encore!)