by Brenda Hillegas
Christine Ohlman was getting ready for her weekend when I gave her a call. It was a Friday afternoon and yet another snow storm was scheduled to hit the New York area. I knew she needed to get to Studio 8H that weekend, where Saturday Night Live is filmed and where she is the lead singer of the SNL band.
Ohlman is kind and extremely gracious, with a voice that sounds like blues meets rock and roll meets sweet and southern with a mix of loud and legendary. When speaking to Ohlman, there was never a lull in conversation- it was just like giving a call to a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while with lots of stories to share and laughs to be had. She feels familiar and that’s something she certainly brings to her performances. There are many coming up this summer and in a few days, she’ll be at The Puck in Doylestown with her band, Rebel Montez.
I thank her again for speaking to me. As a big, nerdy fan of Saturday Night Live, I know the people involved rehearse non-stop. But Ohlman insists that she has all the time in the world to speak with me.
“We only rehearse on Saturday mornings,” she says of the Saturday Night Live band. Referring to the writers and cast members, though, “I never cease to marvel at how quick they switch gears and change.”
Before we even get down to business about Ohlman’s upcoming shows and summer plans with her band, she shares a story about a Saturday Night Live episode last December where the gears were changed quickly. With the sad events of Newtown taking place a day before a new, live SNL was to air, those behind the scenes at SNL quickly gathered children to perform a Christmas song for the cold opening.
“They found extra children and extra choir robes with two hours notice,” says Ohlman, speaking again about how impressive the entire SNL network truly is.
Though I could listen to her talk all day about her time with Saturday Night Live (and I did certainly asked many questions about it), it was Christine Ohlman who I was impressed with. I wanted to hear about the extraordinary year she just had.
In 2012, Ohlman performed at both the Carnegie Hall tribute to the Rolling Stones and at the 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction concert. The induction was filmed by HBO and because of the incredible size of the audience, it took place at the Cleveland Public Hall. That’s the same hall where the Beatles played in 1964. Side note- Paul McCartney was on that recent episode of SNL we spoke about earlier in our conversation.
Last year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert was performed in front of 6,000 fans. “I sang “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” with Carole King and Paul Schaffer,” Ohlman says. “It was quite a bit more lavish than New York inductions at the Waldorf.”
Though, lavish is definitely a word that could be used for one of Ohlman’s New York shows. Last fall, she sang at The Little Kids Rock NYC concert honoring Steven Van Zandt. “It almost never happens,” she says of Springsteen, Van Zandt and Southside Johnny Lyon performing on stage together at the show. An AllMusic review even describes Ohlman as a female Springsteen or Southside Johnny.
Not stopping yet, she was the special guest of the Blind Boys Of Alabama at the 2012 WC Handy Festival in Muscle Shoals, AL. She returned there this February to sing “Sweet Home Alabama” alongside John Paul White of The Civil Wars. “We were doing a post-show concert for the wonderful documentary Muscle Shoals and I went down at the last minute to be in the show. I had never met John Paul before, but we had the best time!” says Ohlman.
Ohlman wrapped up 2012 with another wrap- the television show 30 Rock. She sang the theme for the show and it was only fitting that Ohlman and the Saturday Night Live band perform at the party for the show’s series finale.
“The SNL band hardly gets to go out and play live,” Ohlman says of the experience. “They’re a wonderful band.”
The wrap party was, of course, emotional for everyone involved. “Tina [Fey] and I ended up crying at the end of the night. She’s a genius and we know each other well. She’s an incredibly nice person.”
Ohlman had nothing but nice things to say about any person mentioned in passing throughout our conversation.
With a fun and hectic 2012 gone, I wonder if Ohlman will have any downtime in the new year. This month, Ohlman appeared on another Stones tribute- “The Andrew Oldham Orchestra and Friends Play The Rolling Stones Songbook Volume Two”. Ohlman recorded “You Got The Silver”, a song off of the Let It Bleed LP.
“The first volume was released back in the sixties!” says Ohlman.
Her 2013 year also includes a few concerts with Rockers in Recovery, a non profit whose mission is to support musicians and music lovers who are in recovery or support recovery. It’s dedicated to music, news and festivals taking place within a clean and sober community. Ohlman is part of RIR’s all-star band which consists of Ricky Byrd, Richie Supa, Kasmin Sulton, Mark Stein and Liberty DeVitto. On May 3rd, the band will be in NYC at the Cutting Room.
Playing alongside so many legendary artists must give Ohlman quite a bit of inspiration to draw from.
“As with all things beehive,” the Beehive Queen says, “I go deep. No question- the delta blues.” She mentions many blues singers who inspire her- Son House, Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Coco Taylor, Memphis Minnie.
“Very deep roots is where I draw my inspirations from,” says Ohlman. “That’s what speaks to me.”
Though, as a writer, Ohlman says it’s not a good idea, in her opinon, to listen to a lot of records when in a “writing cycle”. “I don’t want to be influenced. I want to create something timeless. I am much more comfortable being linked in a historic way to the deep well of music.”
Ohlman just won the number one spot in the Roots/Americana female vocalist category for Alternate Route Magazine’s reader’s choice awards. Her voice, promised to set your soul on fire, beat out other artists like Alison Krauss, Grace Potter, Susan Tedeschi and Emmylou Harris. That new title should be enough to draw you to the Puck in Doylestown on April 27th. It’s a beautiful little town with lots of shopping and it’s easy to get to via train if you’re in the city without a car. Check out dinner at the venue, too. Ohlman “endorses it 100%! The food is wonderful there.”
As I scroll through Ohlman’s Facebook page to see what other interesting tid-bits I can throw in here about the Beehive Queen’s awesomeness, I see just how busy she is. On May 1st, she’ll be performing for the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic’s Naughty Nurse Prom, celebrating the clinic’s 15th anniversary, and a benefit on May 2nd with Dr. John, Irma Thomas and many other New Orleans greats. Scrolling down a bit farther, Ohlman is encouraging people to come out to a weekly blues party, one of the longest running on the east coast, to watch her perform with some friends. Someone posted a picture of himself with Ohlman at the Benefit for Music in Common in Connecticut and another person mentioned seeing her at a Beatles convention in New Jersey that same weekend. The next few months will see Ohlman hitting up many of the states on the East Coast up to New England, doing various blues festivals, singing for large crowds and playing at intimate venues, then it’s out to California for a few theatre performances as well. Even during Saturday Night Live’s off season, the Queen and her band are on.