Words by Audra Tracy
The heart of industrial America – The Motor City, The Rubber City, The Blue Chip City, The Glass City – have all been a breeding ground for the outlaws of new millennium blues. An unofficial brotherhood of musicians played the same dingy clubs, stirred up a similar media buzz, and over the past decade, each has slowly gained national appeal. Detroit’s White Stripes hit the airwaves first, followed by Akron, Ohio’s The Black Keys, and finally, members of the Cincinnati-based Greenhornes joined Jack White for The Raconteurs in 2007.
Then there’s the elusive Brian Olive. Under the stage name Oliver Henry, he served time for panhandling on street corners, he once wooed Meg White, and most importantly, he was the under-rated multi-instrumentalist for two seminal bands, The Greenhornes and Toledo’s Soledad Brothers. Oddly enough, he was right in the thick of the blues-rock resurgence when he went rogue, changed his name, and started a solo career.
One might think that working with such prolific peers would inspire a parallel musical direction, but Olive claims the very opposite. On his history with The White Stripes, Olive politely shares, “creatively, I think those relationships have affected me in positive way”. Mostly by helping me realize what I don't want to do”, he says.
And so abandoning the alias of O. Henry helped give Olive the clean slate he was looking for. “It was a good time being Oliver Henry”, he recalls, “but now I'm in a more focused state of mind.” That newfound focus has led him to a hippie-like horizon, awakening listeners with a psychedelic sunrise full of fuzzy happy sunbeams.
Olive’s new sound doesn’t come as a surprise - his background in piano and saxophone finds him better suited for soul shakedowns than the sad sack of blues he left behind. Releasing June 23rd on Alive Records, his debut solo album is an abrupt departure from that former self. The self-titled record is more gypsy pop than garage rock, more of a 60’s love-in than a nod to Howlin’ Wolf.
Artists like Olive should never be ashamed of that creative selfishness of going solo – of that urge to hold the reins, to steer the ship. The only shame here is that Olive took this long to record all those repressed musical ideas. Now that he is finally free to write, record, and mix on his own terms, Olive seems relieved. “I'm doing more of everything”, Olive says, “from being there every moment of recording to handling the business. For me, it's good because I know there won't be any cutting corners or cringing while someone makes poor decisions.”
In addition to carrying lead vocals, ‘the master’ is also credited for playing guitar, piano, and woodwinds on the new record; but he is quick to credit the polyphonic prowess to his gifted kin. “I started on drums when I was 7 and then went to guitar, saxophone, etc”, he recollects. “My family has many musical people - almost everyone on my mother's side. And my father was a pianist who played ragtime religiously.”
All in all, the new songs are refreshingly upbeat, airy, and adopt that ‘family band’ vibe from Olive’s early days. That ‘family’ consists of Mike Weinel (Heartless Bastards), Dan Allaire (Brian Jonestown Massacre), as well as Jared McKinney and Craig Fox of The Greenhornes. A very welcome addition is Donna Jay and the Kadish Sisters, a vocal trio he recruited to back him on tracks like the opening “Ida Red”.
From note one, Olive officially upgrades the dynamic from old and gritty to bright and pretty. “Stealin’” leads a lo-fi funk parade, boasting a horn section so rich it could start a block party in some neighborhoods. The ethereal “See Me Mariona” whisks you away to that magic hookah bar in the sky, while the beatnik “High Low” kinda conjures up the spirit of “Minnie the Moocher”.
Olive only has a few hometown gigs booked around Ohio this summer, but hopefully he’ll enlighten the East Coast sooner than later. Looking ahead, there’s much more to come from this former blues brother. “More than anything, I'd like to make another record”, he relates.
If you do get the chance to check out his new groove live, just make sure you don’t mention how his album is on your iPod. “Someone gave me an mp3 player a few years ago and I ‘accidentally lost it’ after I heard my music come out of it”, the vinyl-phile says. “I am glad it exists for people who need to hear music and have no good record store around, but it's definitely no substitute for the real thing.”