Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Mike Gentry
One of Ollabelle's main vocalists, Amy Helm, wasn't here this day. She stayed back in upstate New York, caring for her newborn baby, but it was hard not to think about the time I first and heard her sing when listening back to the songs her bandmates recorded here in Rock Island a few weeks ago. It was a few summers ago, and Daytrotter illustrator Johnnie Cluney and I booked last minute flights into La Guardia, rented a car and drove the few hours north to Woodstock, where Helm's father, the great Levon Helm of The Band lived. It was her dad's 70th birthday party. We'd never been to Woodstock and we wholeheartedly thought that we were going to be turned away, that something was going to get messed up and we were going to be without access. But we got to town, followed some signs to a huge record sale on a cul de sac, happening out of a stuffed garage and from underneath tents, with neighborhood children manning the cash register. We drove to the other side of town, saw some crazy, old-looking hippies in the square and then bought our pies for passing at the potluck. The burgers and dogs were on the house and we had a decent enough beer for the BYOB occasion. It's a surreal experience when it dawns on you that you're parking a car on Levon Helm's lawn and that he lives in the one half of the barn/house. He has an address like everyone else and you can drive to where he is. The show was phenomenal and Amy Helm was a highlight during the lengthy Levon Helm Band set.
It was hard not to watch her as she sang - incredibly smiley and with some of the great mannerisms of her father's. You started to wonder if she grew up on that property, if the dog that was cooking around the premises and fetching sticks thrown into the perfectly cut, idyllic and glass-like lake, had been her dog. You hoped that it had been cause one should be so lucky to have grown up from childhood being surrounded by such beauty - by pine trees so tightly together that a skinny person has to turn sideways to pass through their density, by the sound of nothing but that dog splashing. When thinking about Ollabelle - a band made up of the harmonies of keyboardist/accordianist Glenn Patscha, bassist/guitarist Byron Isaacs, guitarist/bassist Fiona McBain and drummer Tony Leone - we want to wonder if they all just grew up with Amy, right there on that land. Even if none of them grew up there - if Amy was raised elsewhere - we have every right to imagine that they all did, hearing this spectacular tranquility in the bluegrass and Americana stylings of the group's music.
You can hear those thick as wool pine trees and you can feel yourself on your back, floating in the warm summer waters of that lake. We wanted to steal that lake. Ollabelle makes music that celebrates the feelings that lead us to wanting, or needing a place like that spread to retreat to. It's for when we've become too tired to deal with love and with other people. We just want to lie down or we want to sit on a shore and stare aimlessly, but freely off toward the vanishing point. The choice of performing a version of the old standard "Swanee River," on the group's latest album, "Neon Blue Bird," is ace and it must have been chosen, in considerable part, for some of the words that Stephen Foster wrote, way back in 1851. He wrote, "Way down upon the Swanee River/Far, far away/That's where my heart is yearning ever/That's where the old folks stay/All up and down the whole creation/Sadly I roam." The weary hearts are sung about and it's as if a retreat is inevitable, back to this place or a place like it, surrounded by pines.