Paying tribute to Ola Belle Reed
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 5, 2004) -- In spite of the fact that bluegrass legends like Del McCoury and country singers like Marty Stuart have recorded songs by Ola Belle Reed, one of the great singers, songwriters and banjoists of bluegrass and old-time folk music, she has never achieved the same level of household recognition as a Bill Monroe or Jimmie Rodgers.

But a new generation of rock-reared musicians might be about to change all that. The North Carolina native is the subject of a full-length, recorded tribute by the Demolition String Band, a New York City-based twang-rock duo. “Where the Wild, Wild Flowers Grow: The Songs of Ola Belle Reed” (Okra-Tone) makes a convincing case for Reed’s genius, which was recognized when she was presented with a National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1986. These 13 versions of Reed’s songs by Elena Skye and Boo Reiners – with help from Del McCoury bassist Mike Bub and Klezmatics fiddler Lisa Gutkin – are presented in all-acoustic arrangements on mandolin, guitar, and banjo, much the way Reed, who was born in 1915 and died in 2002, would have sung them herself.

The Demolition String Band celebrates the release of its tribute to Ola Belle Reed in concert at Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) this Sunday at 8:30. But in what has to rank as a coincidence of epic proportion, the band will follow by one night a performance at Helsinki by the new folk-roots group, Ollabelle. Named after the same Ola Belle Reed, Ollabelle, also based in New York, is an ensemble of young singers and musicians – including vocalist Amy Helm, daughter of Levon Helm, drummer/singer of The Band -- inspired by rural American roots music including gospel, blues, spirituals, bluegrass and country. As heard in their warmup set for Diana Krall at Tanglewood last month (and presumably in its opening set for the Blind Boys of Alabama earlier this year in Pittsfield), the group filters its old-time music through a scrim of Seventies-era psychedelia.

Cuban all-stars plugged in

As heard on their terrifically infections, groovy CD, “Fuacata Live!” (Elegua), state-of-the-art electronica blends seamlessly with sounds evoking the Buena Vista All-Stars when the Spam Allstars perform. The horn-laced funk group, led by DJ Le Spam, has attracted the attention of the likes of Page McConnell of Phish and keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood, both of whom have sat in with the band, which includes Tomas Diaz on timbales, A.J. Hill and Steve Welsh on saxes, John Speck on trombone, Mercedes Abel on flute, and Adam Zimmon on guitar. The Miami-based outfit turns Mass MoCA (662-2111) into a Cuban nightclub when they host a Little Havana Dance Party on Saturday night at 7:30. Doors open at 6:30 for Cuban food and drink.

West coast jazz comes east

West Coast jazz trumpeter Carl Saunders, who was a sideman in bands led by Stan Kenton, Bill Holman, Bob Florence and others, makes the most of a rare New England swing with appearances this weekend at Castle Street Café (413-528-5244) in Great Barrington on Saturday night at 8 and on Sunday and Monday in Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood (413-637-5165) at 8:30, when he will perform under the direction of John Williams in a jazz orchestra assembled for a performance of Williams’s 40-year-old arrangement of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady.”

According to local big-band aficionado Ed Bride, Saunders “is known and admired for his ability to make the seemingly impossible be not only possible, but easy and musical.” In an e-mail message, Bride, who closely follows alumni of Stan Kenton’s orchestra, wrote of Saunders, “Even those who can’t play the trumpet are moved by his ability to get inside a song and make it sing in ways it never has before. For this reason, he is a popular clinician, as well.”

Deborah Coleman’s electricity

Don’t tell blues singer-guitarist Deborah Coleman about electricity – she knows all about it. The Virginia native was playing electric bass and guitar in rock and R&B bands as early as age 15. But by the time she was 25, married with children, she put her career in music aside – and got a job as an electrician. Fortunately for blues fans, she picked up the guitar again a few years later, and as heard on her brand-new album, “What About Love?” (Telarc Blues), Coleman can shoot sparks through her instrument and with her smooth, subtle vocals. Coleman is at Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) on Friday at 9.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 5, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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