Ollabelle, Neon Blue Bird. The third album by this endlessly intriguing East Coast band has more than a little in common with The Band's groundbreaking debut Music from Big Pink. Ollabelle decided to start the recordings in a house in upstate New York and see where that led them. Of course, one of their lead singers is Amy Helm, daughter of The Band's distinguished drummer Levon Helm. It also doesn't hurt that this quintet finds a way to turn rootsy music into something that borders on the spiritual. All the songs on Neon Blue Bird really do feel as if they could easily take flight.
One of the group's strengths is how many singers there are within their ranks, and the easeful way all those voices blend together. Musicians Byron Isaacs, Glenn Patscha, and Tony Leone join Helm and the amazing Fiona McBain to lead the vocal charge. They also have a knocked-out knack for taking traditional songs like "Be Your Woman" and "Butcher Boy" and turning them totally into their own creations. That kind of gift is something that comes from within, and can't really be taught. Ollabelle has it to the max.
Add to all this the uncanny ear to cover winning songs by Paul Kelly, Taj Mahal, Chris Whitley, and Stephen Foster, and Ollabelle begins to feel like the great semi-discovered American band. In the several years since their last album, babies have been born, record labels have been shed, and an appealing self-empowerment has taken over. The band, to our forever favor, has found themselves in the slipstream. Long may they fly.
The Bo-Keys, Got to Get Back! Memphis soul music is a world unto itself. Years after it had taken the world by the throat and turned listeners on to one of life's great lessons—how to groove—it still continues to thrill. No one does it better now than the Bo-Keys. They have gone to school on all-time greats like Booker T. & the MGs and the Hi Records rhythm section, and balance fire and finesse like they were born to do it.
The big news on Got to Get Back! is the presence of Hi drummer Howard Grimes. The player who supplied the percussive power on all those great Al Green, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson and other recordings done at Royal Studio still has every ounce of soul dripping from his heart right onto the drums. From the very first beat on "Hi Roller," it is one of music's true treasures to hear songs played with this much unrelenting beauty. Like the proverbial dog on a bone, it all goes a long way describing why they call Grimes "the Memphis bulldog." A finer tower of strength never sat behind a kit.
Make no mistake, though, the Bo-Keys are more than ready for the challenge of keeping up with Howard Grimes. This is one bad ass bunch, who for good measure also call in guitar veteran Charles "Skip" Pitts, vocalists Otis Clay, William Bell, and Charlie Musselwhite, who adds his distinctive harp blowing to make sure the whole album shines like a mountain of soul. There are no fancy tricks or superfluous strains to be found on the dozen songs, all but Arthur Conley's "I'm Going Home" new originals. There was once a black motorcycle club in Memphis with a sign on their front door that read "Rattlesnakes don't commit suicide." Neither does music like this that speaks so strongly straight to the center of the mind and body. And, of course, always the heart. Always.
Bucks Owens, Bound for Bakersfield. He's one of modern country music's foundation artists ever since he came riding out of Bakersfield with a Telecaster electric guitar in his hands. And while Buck Owens hit the big time hosting the television show Hee Haw in the '60s, he deserves credit for helping forge the electrified Bakersfield sound starting a decade earlier. These recordings show where he came from and in so many ways point to where he was going.
Playing in honkytonks like the Roundup and Blackboard, Owens found his way onto the local label Pep Records. On early songs "Down on the Corner of Love" and "The House Down the Block," the singer's voice, which was one day to become a household sound, is unmistakable. Even better is the twanging guitar picking that was going to roar through country music soon enough like a house on fire. Buck Owens was also obviously aware of rockabilly's surging appeal, and today his "Hot Dog" single shows he could easily have headed down that road if he'd have been in Memphis instead of California, while "Rhythm and Booze" features the best sounding trash can ever recorded.
As history often dictates, Owens was in the right place at the perfect time, and after coming to the attention of Capitol Records he'd found a home. Hit after hit started happening, and along with an astute business sense Buck Owens seemed to take over the world in the '60s and '70s. Sometimes the corn pone television image got in the way of hearing him for the incredibly talented musician he always was. That didn't stop him for a second. When acolyte Dwight Yoakam helped bring the man back in the late '80s it was like a giant had arisen. Bound for Bakersfield is a swinging lesson in where he started.