Down Home in New York With Ollabelle

I've often heard of New York City referred to as America's largest small town. It's that strange interconnectedness that happens to people in a city of eight million -- it's the not-so-rare moments of serendipity when you bump into a friend on the street who you haven't seen in years. And, like all small towns, summers in New York City give musicians their respective back porches to play on -- Central Park, Madison Square Park, Prospect Park and countless other public stages set up as momentary oases amid the surrounding jungle of buildings and urban chaos.

Last week's temporary back porch was a loading dock in an open alleyway behind City Winery. Hot dogs smoked on grills, peach iced tea chilled in coolers and a crowd of New Yorkers sat on asphalt, fashioning seats out of that morning's New York Times, ready to leave the day's work behind them and enjoy a free, two-hour Ollabelle concert. I could hardly think of a more appropriate band to usher in an informal, outdoor music series than this collaborative group of multi-instrumentalists whose seasoned sound lands them somewhere between gospel and country -- between funk and folk. Somewhere, in many ways, between the past and the present.

I had first heard Ollabelle unexpectedly on a summer night in 2004. I was with a group of friends, speeding down a quiet, winding road in Putnam County -- the warm breeze from rolled-down windows a welcome substitute for air-conditioning. We were listening to the great, 90.7 WFUV, when a song came on that swiftly forced the volume up. There were thumping drums, hands clapping, roaring vocals and a sound that seemed to have come straight from a 1930s chain gang in Georgia. We drove a bit faster, played drums on anything that would make a sound, and sang along like we'd known the song for years.

I learned later that we were listening to "Before this Time," the opening track of Ollabelle's debut album. We were 20-something years old -- a hop away from New York City, secretly wishing to be a closer hop to Memphis -- allowing that soul-filled, gospel road map of an album lead us on a spiritual journey through the mythic American south that had for so long captivated our musical imagination.

By late 2006, Ollabelle had released their second album, Riverside Battle Songs and the country Putnam roads had been replaced with narrow Italian cobblestone streets. I was living in Rome, now listening to WFUV streaming online, and had yet to be homesick, until I heard a block of songs from the new album: "Riverside," "Gone Today," and "Troubles of the World."

The music was communal and accessible; fiddles, pianos and guitars danced delicately around each other, and the haunting and forgiving lyrics led me back to a familiar place. Collectively, the songs spoke of life's fleeting presence, relinquishing control to faith in the great beyond, and accepting life's triumphs and tragedies as they come -- themes that gently pulled me toward the Smithsonian Folkways version of America that had only temporarily fallen out of reach.

Last summer, Ollabelle released their long-awaited third album, Neon Blue Bird. Heavy on grit, funk, blues and a bit more rock than country, the pulsing chorus of "Be Your Woman," the ethereal journey of "Wait for the Sun," and a rocking version of Chris Whitley's, "Dirt Floor," marked yet another layer in Ollabelle's rich musical landscape. The songs may be steeped in Americana tradition, but the music is contemporary, carried forth by fresh voices, youthful energy and deep respect for the foundation on which it stands.

It wasn't surprising, then, that when Ollabelle and special guests, Jason Crigler and David Mansfield, took to City Winery's indoor and outdoor stages last week, they blended a strong mix of original songs with Neil Young classics, new gems from Gillian Welch, Bob Dylan standards and never-to-be-lost Merle Haggard songs, offering the audience a brief escape into hymnals, sing-alongs and the rustic landscape that accompanied it all.

Night started to fall during a crowd-rousing version of "Corrina, Corrina," and I caught myself leaning back on my elbows, looking toward the sky. I glanced up at the buildings surrounding City Winery and saw people two, three, four, five stories above, leaning out of their apartment windows. Some sat on their fire escapes, others kicked their bare feet out into the air, letting their legs sway along to the changing beats of the songs. The band smiled up toward the buildings, waving and welcoming everyone -- fire escape and asphalt sitters alike - to sing along.

20 blocks from Wall Street, three blocks from the Hudson River and 30 blocks from Times Square, Ollabelle casually played for an audience of what genuinely appeared to be their old pals -- and, you got the sense that those who weren't would most certainly soon be. Because, after all, what are small towns and back porches, really, if not enjoying the gift of each other's company, singing with friends and appreciating the comfort of simply being at home?