Allison Russell is one of this year’s most improbable success stories and perhaps it’s most endearing. The singer-songwriter multi-instrumentalist is a veteran of folk and roots bands including Po’ Girls and Birds of Chicago. Both bands have enjoyed a measure of critical acclaim but have had only modest success. Russell also joined Our Native Daughters, a group of four black female banjo players organized by Rhiannon Giddens, whose album, Songs of Our Native Daughters, and subsequent tour was very well received. Russell released her stunning debut album, Outside Child, in 2021 at age 41. Lyrically, the album details the severe physical, sexual and emotional abuse she endured at the hands of her stepfather while growing up in Montreal. Although some tracks can be searing, the message is an uplifting one. According to Russell, Outside Child is about “resilience, survival, transcendence, the redemptive power of art, community, connection, and decided family.” The album has enjoyed tremendous critical acclaim, topping some best album of the year lists and garnering numerous nominations (eg, three Grammy’s) and awards (winning a Juno (Canadian music awards) for best contemporary roots album). Russell has made several high-profile TV appearances (eg, Jimmy Kimmel and Colbert) and is a featured performer at various summer festivals. Flatiron Books recently contracted her to publish a memoir. It has been an extraordinary year.
I was fortunate to see Allison Russell at City Winery in New York on March 7, 2022. Kyshona Armstrong opened the show accompanied by just an acoustic guitar. Armstrong performed her compositions that dealt with issues such as social justice, confronting one’s fear, healing, and potential. She is an engaging performer and possesses a strong and soulful voice. Armstrong is a talent deserving wider recognition.
Allison Russell, who plays banjo and clarinet in addition to singing, was joined by four other female musicians that she refers to as her “circle of goddesses.” These included violinist Monique Ross and cellist Chauntee Ross who also play together as SistaStrings, Mandy Fer on guitar, and Beth Goodfellow on drums. They are formidable musicians, and all can sing exceptionally well in unison and with harmony vocals. Russell’s music is not easy to characterize. For convenience, she can be grouped within the elastic boundaries of roots and Americana music. Folk, blues, country, R&B, rock, and French chanson elements are woven into her music. Russell is a fluent French speaker, and parts of songs are sung in French, with the switch cued by a bridge or a new verse. The juxtaposition introduces new emotional content (“Le coeur de l’enfant est le coeur de l’univers”) and can be breathtakingly beautiful. The music is sometimes spare, with all five musicians singing in unison, creating an extraordinary effect. I can’t think of anyone mining similar musical territory.
The set opened with “Little Rebirth,” a beautiful spiritual sung mostly a cappella, along with the Ross sisters. This was followed by the “Runner,” an infectious rocker that recounts her need to escape the terrible abuse at home and find redemption and deliverance in music. “Persephone,” the second single off the album, tells the story of how she found solace in the arms of a girl, her first true love, who embraced her unconditionally. “4th Day Prayer” is the most searing lyrically:
Father used me like a wife,
Mother turned the blindest eye,
Stole my body, spirit, pride.
He did he did each night.
In live performance, “4th Day Prayer” came across as an act of defiance, with Goodfellow maintaining an insistent drum beat, coupled with jarring guitar and string fills and vocals ranging from angry to triumphant. One of the great highlights was “All of the Women,” a stark banjo and clarinet-driven ballad that recounts a story of a sex trade worker and the peril she faces. Kyshona Armstrong joined the group onstage for several songs beginning with “Nightflyer,” the album’s first single and best-known track. It’s one of those songs that defy categorization, blurring genre boundaries. It begins with a driving bass line played by Chauntee Ross (on cello). It is alternately emotionally jarring as the narrative unfolds and joyous. Armstrong shared the lead vocals on a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin Bout a Revolution,” a song that holds out hope of a brighter future for the disenfranchised.
Russell’s banter between songs provided valuable insight. Aside from characterizing her own traumatic journey, she spoke in support of those who have been marginalized, particularly women of color and queer women of color. She is a remarkably eloquent speaker with poetic grace. Russell is unflinchingly honest and possesses a great (sometimes) self-deprecating sense of humor. There is no artifice to her. I suspect that most of the audience in the sold out venue had never seen Russell before and may not have heard of her as recently as a few months before the concert. Yet there was a remarkably deep connection between performer and audience, who shared a 90-minute journey and celebration of survivors’ joy.