The music that Ollabelle has designed over much of the past decade isn't so much a strict product of roots-conscious savvy, but rather a keen ability to bring traditional folk and blues elements into the present day with a sound that is very much its own.
The instrumentation might reflect antique accents of steel guitar and pump organ, but its vocal blend, and the melodic scope of its original material, possess a relaxed contemporary lyricism.
Such is the presentation of Neon Blue Bird, Ollabelle's first album in five years. The opening version of Paul Kelly's You're Gonna Miss Me churns along with a rustic blues stomp that eases into Amy Helm's vocal cool. Already the ages and styles run happily into each other with a roots-driven authority that rides side by side with folksy intimacy and even a dash of poppish charm.
Reversing the strategy somewhat is Dirt Floor, a work by the late great Chris Whitley, an artist similarly versed in merging jagged traditionalism with contemporary appeal. But this version begins with a rich, folksy sway executed on guitar, mandolin and mandola and Glenn Patscha's conversational singing. Admittedly, this is one of Whitley's more reassuring songs to begin with. But Ollabelle's treatment turns out to be as distinctive as it is complementary.
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Singer Fiona McBain turns in a pair of fine originals (including the beautiful Wait for the Sun). But her treatment of the traditional Butcher Boy just about steals the show here. Her whispery vocal lead retains the tune's luscious sense of mystery and British folk ancestry. But the band arrangement lets the music simmer until its bleeds out in rich orchestral drama colored by harmony vocals from Helm. It's an exquisite performance all around.
Perhaps the tune that plays best to Ollabelle's sense of roots-driven discovery is also its biggest surprise: an update of Stephen Foster's Swanee River that sounds positively pastoral. With an almost meditative vocal performance from Patscha, the arrangement opens as a percussive lullaby before building into a regal yet hushed affirmation.
Maybe that's the secret to the ongoing appeal of Ollabelle and, ultimately, to what makes Neon Blue Bird so satisfying. The band continues to have an ability to take something as familiar as an age-old blues melody or as foreign as a folk tale from another shore and blur their respective edges. What results is music respectful of both extremes that also reveals a lustrous and original contemporary identity. It becomes — purely, simply, with enormous satisfaction — Ollabelle's music.
Ollabelle will perform at 6:45 p.m. Sept. 12 at the Kentucky Theatre for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. For reservations, call (859) 252-8888. Woodsongs.com.