We are speaking of Neon Blue Bird, the new album by acclaimed American roots–rock band Ollabelle – celebrating ten years together in the fall of 2011.
This fifteen–track collection is the group’s third full–length album and Ollabelle’s first new studio set since Riverside Battle Songs (2006). Neon Blue Bird is also the first self–produced and self–financed Ollabelle album to be released on the group’s own label, with distribution through respected indie 30 Tigers. (Their self–titled debut was released on album producer T Bone Burnett’s DMZ label through Sony Music; Riverside Battle Songs, produced by Larry Campbell, appeared on Universal Music imprint Verve/Forecast.)
It’s no exaggeration to call Neon Blue Bird one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated new albums. The release is especially welcomed by its creators who worked (on and off) for nearly four years to complete the project. During this period, four out of five band members – Amy Helm, Glenn Patscha, and married couple Tony Leone and Fiona McBain – became first–time parents and all including Byron Isaacs were engaged in a variety of outside musical projects.
Following what Isaacs calls “a second disappointing major label experience,” the members of Ollabelle “decided to make a record exactly how we wanted: no label, no suits, no producer, no deadline, no compromises.”
“Of course, working without a deadline can be a double–edged sword,” Byron admits. “However, I truly believe that we’ve made a statement that is purely Ollabelle – one that bears the musical mark of each individual while deepening the group chemistry.”
Work on Neon Blue Bird began in 2007 at a rented house in upstate Athens NY, where Ollabelle commenced two weeks of intensive songwriting and recording sessions with engineer Hector Castillo.
“We consistently found our demos to have a magic that wasn't quite captured on the final records,” says Byron. “That lead us to rent the house upstate and record as we wrote – exactly as we had when assembling material for previous records, but this time with an engineer and full multi–tracking.”
In these informal surroundings, the musicians found their individual roles to be less strictly defined and more flexible than on previous recordings. Each participated to the extent that family obligations would allow; each adapted his or her talents to the re¬quirements of the song at hand. Bassist Byron Isaacs, for example, also performed on guitar, lap steel, Dobro, and banjo; other members also switched off instrumental and vocal duties as needed. As Glenn Patscha put it: “We didn't have to play roles this time at any point. We just had to please ourselves.”
“It just felt right to sit in a room, record songs in the most informal way possible, and then see where we landed,” Amy Helm recalls. “I think we needed to actually create an album from a place of not knowing. The less of a game plan we had, the better the songs came out.”
More sessions followed later at Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock NY. (The Band’s leg¬endary drummer, vocalist and songwriter is the father of Amy Helm – she and Byron Isaacs both perform with Levon’s touring group.) But the arrival of Levon Henry Collins, Otto Henry Patscha, and Georgia Rose McBain Leone necessarily interrupted both the recording process and Ollabelle’s touring schedule.
Amy: “We recorded the album, almost everyone got pregnant, and the tunes sat on the shelf waiting patiently for the babies to grow!”
“A baby brings a life change,” says Fiona McBain. “There's more joy than you ever thought possible, but it’s no longer viable to tour for weeks in a van while sleeping two to a room.”
The passing years have not diminished the power and beauty of Neon Blue Bird’s time¬less songs. Amy Helm’s wailing lead on the gospel–blues tune “Be Your Woman” invokes the spirit of the Staple Singers. “Butcher Boy” recasts a classic British Isles folk ballad with Fiona McBain’s spare arrangement perfectly framing her ethereal vocal. Glenn Patscha’s “One More Time” could be an outtake from Workingman’s Dead – that is, if the Grateful Dead had added Ollabelle’s soaring male/female vocal blend to the chorus.
Neon Blue Bird includes imaginative and passionate reworkings of songs by Paul Kelly (“You’re Gonna Miss Me”), Chris Whitley (“Dirt Floor”), Taj Mahal (“Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes”), and Stephen Foster (“Swanee River”). In addition, there are four bonus tracks comprised of two additional Ollabelle originals, “Fool’s Job” and “Wait To Say Goodbye”; and the group’s renditions of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Congratulations” and “The Crooked Line,” a lesser–known gem by Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett.
“I think we all grew up a lot and realized what Ollabelle meant to ourselves and to people in general,” Glenn says in summation. “We can finally feel grateful and enjoy the fact that Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Allison Krauss and many other heroes of ours, love our music. We have grown into our skin as Ollabelle.”