Ollabelle didn't get born out of a tiny rural church in the South. It's not a family band that's carried on through generations. This might not seem particularly unusual, except Ollabelle is a gospel group.
Dear music-lovers, please abandon your stereotypes about contemporary religious music. Ollabelle isn't the latest thing on the Jesus-pop circuit. Nor is it anything to do with James Dobson. Instead, the group—singing the songs my grandmother sang in church—was born in 2001 at a bar called 9C in New York City's East Village.
In the beginning, some friends got together each week to jam on old gospel tunes at 9C. Soon, all the Village artist-types were attending. Eventually, the originators decided to make the jam more than a side project. They put traditional country singer Ola Belle Reed's name through Pete Seeger's folk process and came up with the group name “Ollabelle.” When T-Bone Burnett, producer of the famed O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, heard the group's demo, he immediately flew to New York to sign Ollabelle on his new label, DMZ/Columbia. The group's self-titled album came out in March 2004.
Since then, the group has toured with Diana Krall and opened for Allison Krauss and Buddy Miller. Ollabelle's success says a lot about the heart of gospel music—which has little to do with the specifics of Christianity. It's more about a forceful feeling the music carries, a feeling that is strung between phrases of belief and sorrow, between the layers of voices, and between concerns about the individual soul. It's the meta-history of human existence being told. That feeling has everything to do with the sheer vocal power gospel music calls for, and Ollabelle's got it. The group's six-person sound updates old gospel and blues, mixes in secular bluegrass and country, and creates a sound (and feeling) that rises above red-blue and religious lines.
The band members come from jazz, blues and professional singing backgrounds. The sensibilities of these genres fuse with the group's covers of rural roots music to produce a percussive, electric-tinged new traditional sound. This fusion ranges from the gritty soulfulness of "Can't Nobody do me Like Jesus," "Get Back Temptation" and "Elijah Rock," to the stripped-down, plaintive "The Storms are on the Ocean."
Ollabelle's music has retained the participatory quality of the group's beginning and of gospel music itself. This updated old-time gospel machine will be testifying across New Mexico as part of an eight-city tour, sponsored by the New Mexico Presenter's Alliance. Come out and get saved at the Outpost.
Ollabelle will play at the Outpost Performance Space, 210 Yale SE, on Saturday, Oct. 29. Cost is $20, $15 for members. Tickets available in advance at Outpost or by calling 268-0044.