If you weren't familiar with the almost panoramic musical scope that defines Ollabelle, you might view its new album, Neon Blue Bird, as a far-reaching stylistic journey.
It starts with a wiry steel guitar romp, all ripe and rootsy, that leads into Paul Kelly's You're Gonna Miss Me and wind ups with a reimagining of Swanee River as a pastoral affirmation.
In between, there are sleek original tunes referencing elements of blues, soul and gospel, crisp takes on the songs of such disparate roots music pioneers as Taj Mahal and Chris Whitley, and a blast of British folk (the brilliant Butcher Boy) that sounds suitably unearthly.
That's quite a reach for a single album. And because Neon Blue Bird is Ollabelle's first studio album in five years, such comprehensive roots-music genre-hopping might seem novel. But for this decade-old New York outfit, which disperses lead vocal duties among all five of its members, the meshing of various styles into a cohesive and commanding sound of its own has pretty much always been its primary musical mission.
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"What has always been so great about this group is this chemistry," said Ollabelle bassist and dobroist Byron Isaacs. "It's been there from the very start. Whenever there is conflict or whenever one of us might disagree about an approach, it always winds up in some sort of compromise that ends up being something better that any of the parties had imagined.
"We know going into any project that we're all going to stake our ground and have our opinions. But we also know we're going to be surprised. So we're already walking in with a certain amount of artistic humility. But that makes for a special kind of chemistry that results in new sounds, new grooves and new mash-ups. That's the glory of the chemistry of this band. It's killer."
The backgrounds of the five Ollabelle members bear out the band's varied musical styles. Singer/mandola player Amy Helm hails from proud Woodstock, N.Y., parentage (her father is Levon Helm, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee for his work with The Band). Singer/guitarist Fiona McBain moved to New York from Sydney, Australia. Singer/ keyboardist Glenn Patscha is a Canadian versed in the moods and music of New Orleans. Singer/drummer Tony Leone comes from a versed jazz background. Multiinstrumentalist and songwriter Isaacs completes the lineup.
National audiences got their first serious taste of the band as part of the T Bone Burnett-organized Americana road show known as The Great High Mountain Tour, which included bluegrass royals Alison Krauss and Ralph Stanley. The release of Ollabelle's self-titled, Burnett-produced debut album preceded the tour, and the Larry Campbell-produced Riverside Battle Songs followed in 2006. A live album, Before This Time, came out in 2009.
As with Neon Blue Bird, Ollabelle's music doesn't intend to offer any kind of scholarly recitation of specific roots-music styles but rather an assimilation of them in a diverse yet unified sound of its own.
"That's the goal," Isaacs said. "We're sort of allergic to dishonesty. If something doesn't sound honest to us, then it's back to the drawing board. We're always looking for that absolute, undeniable honesty in the approach. Now, you can take a song pretty far out if you want, just as long as that honesty of intention is still rooted somewhere. Pushing those boundaries, actually, is part of what makes this music so much fun."
The same can be said for the musical activities Ollabelle's members have engaged in since the release of Riverside Battle Songs. Helm, Isaacs and Leone have all been part of Levon Helm's band and the famed Midnight Ramble concerts he stages at his Woodstock studio and occasionally on the road.
For Isaacs, simply feeding off the elder Helm's drive and joy in performance has been exhilarating.
"We all fell into the Levon Helm thing so perfectly. That's another beautiful marriage of ideas and music, but in a completely different way. It's another means of learning. Boy, is there ever a lot to learn from him.
"When you play with Levon, you can hear the old Delta stuff. You can hear the old jug bands. You can hear the medicine shows and dance bands. You can all of that great rock 'n' roll and all of the variations hence. I mean, that dude is totally turned on by music. The energy pouring out of him is just relentless. He's a juggernaut."