Shoreline native Christine Ohlman is, by turns, an artist, icon, and respected musician. With her trademark blonde beehive and Roy Orbison shades, Ohlman has skipped the light fandango from local bands to TV stardom to jamming with some of the world’s greatest musicians. Even so, she doesn’t want to talk so much about her resume.
She wants to talk about Percy Sledge.
She’s got a guitar case full of stellar memories, which come across as moments.”
We caught up with Ohlman as she prepared to jet off to a gig in Nashville, just a week before her return to the Madison Beach Hotel’s Grassy Strip concert series on Wednesday July 1, to kick off their 2015 season. That show was on her mind, and so was another.
“I just got asked to sing at Percy Sledge’s church for a gospel memorial to him,” Ohlman says. “I’m just completely honored out of my mind. I’m sure I’ll be the only northerner there. I nearly started crying.” That’s surprising, because she has shared the stage with George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Dion DiMucci, Marshall Crenshaw, and so many others. She’s got a guitar case full of stellar memories, which come across as moments.
“There are so many,” she says. “Like my first show with the Saturday Night Live band, which was out in the Hamptons. Or playing Madison Square Garden for Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary on Columbia Records, where everyone from Johnny Cash right on down was there. Carnegie Hall with Ian Hunter was wonderful; as is anything I’ve ever done with Rebel Montez. I loved the concerts I did with Mac Rebennack [a.k.a Dr. John], and recording with Levon Helm at his studio in Woodstock. Those were amazing times.”
Times continue to be amazing for Ohlman and her band, Rebel Montez. They’re working on their next studio album, The Grown-Up Thing, following their 2010 tour de force, The Deep End. As ever, Ohlman is pounding stages nationwide with her trusty Gibson J-45 acoustic, belting out an R&B rock sound that auto-tune can’t touch.
Ohlman could chose to live anywhere, drawing inspiration from exotic locales. But her fountainhead is right here on the Connecticut coast.
“The Connecticut shoreline is so dear to me,” she says, “and coming back to the Madison Beach Hotel in its new form has been very joyful for me and the members of the band. [Owner Henry “Ric” Duques] has a long-standing commitment to holding these concerts. It’s a great thing for summer and the shoreline.”
Ohlman knows a thing or two about summer fun, the shoreline – and the MBH. “I have a particular link to that place, going back to my Scratch Band days with G.E. Smith. That love has really carried over between me and shoreline music fans.”
Before its current incarnation as an upscale eatery, the MBH’s Wharf Restaurant was a grittier music venue. Ohlman made her bones there. “Back in the day, The Wharf was a serious cocktail lounge where they had cover bands. I don’t play anything but original music, so it should never have worked for me. We were very surprised when it did. We’re just delighted to come back.”
Since the MBH’s rebirth, the Grassy Strip concerts have brought back beach music with a bang. “These concerts are just off the charts,” Ohlman says. “People are hanging off the balcony, just about. It’s nuts. And it’s like coming home for me.”
Aside from her endless creativity in the studio and onstage, Ohlman is an opinionated music historian who views current events in the music business with the aplomb of a seasoned pro. Asked about Taylor Swift spanking Apple over a music streaming pay policy that would have hurt songwriters, Ohlman becomes animated.
“It’s wonderful what Taylor is doing,” she says. “She’s really speaking up for everyone, because Apple certainly would have gotten away with it if she didn’t say something. There’d be nobody else. It’s lovely what she did. Just absolutely lovely.”
Ohlman went indie a long time ago for the same reason that Swift spoke up: corporate control of the music business wasn’t panning out for almost anyone but corporations.
“I think the future of American popular music, once again, is with independent labels and independent venues,” she says. “I play a lot of small theaters around the country, like The Kate in Old Saybrook, and the future is really there. Independent labels and venues are carrying American popular music right now.”
Speaking of American popular music, does Ohlman have any words of wisdom for her shoreline neighbor – and newly minted pop star – Nick Fradiani?
“I’ve known Nick Fradiani’s father forever,” she says. “My brother played in bands with him. I’m privy to what’s going on, so my advice for Nick Fradiani would be to keep his own counsel within the American Idol structure, which I’m sure he’s doing. His father is a very smart man.”
The rest of Ohlman’s advice for Nick Fradiani was more…colorful…and off the record. She added only this: “Anyone who knows about that show knows what they do. It’s a very good thing if you succeed. If you don’t, it can bury you. I am very happy for Nick. At the same time I’m looking at it going, ‘Please listen to your father, stay the course of what you were doing, and follow your heart.’ If he does that he’ll be fine.”
When the Beehive Queen speaks (or sings), it’s always a good idea to listen.