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Russell shows the triumph of human nature

The Sinclair, Cambridge, Mass., March 8, 2022

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

Allison Russell was best known as being one-half of Birds of Chicago with her husband, but her first solo album, "The Outside Child," changed that. Russell's music was not designed for the faint of heart as she very squarely confronted her longstanding turmoil due to the sexual abused heaped on her by her father as a kid. Life was not pretty.

But artistically, anyway, Russell seems to be doing quite fine. The album, which is on the Americana side of music, received tremendous, deserved praise. But touring plans were felled by COVID. Russell never had the chance to play "The Outside Child" songs until Newport Folk Festival this past July, and, fortunately, she's now able put these songs out there live.

Russell made it clear that the pain was going to be the theme of the night starting with one of the gems from "The Outside Child," "Hy-Brasil," a fairy tale song with the lines "Though I drowned for 10 years, I'm still rising/Stronger for my pain and suffering/My body was broken but my heart's reborn/I'm freer than the sky."

The gloom of childhood was further made underscored by the even more haunting "4th Day Prayer," where she directly confronts her father and mother: "Father used me like a wife/Mother turned the blindest eye/Stole my body, spirit, pride/He did, he did each night."

Both through song and talking often with the crowd of about 300 (sadly, only about two-thirds of a house for such a quality artist, who was deservedly nominated for three Grammys), Russell would also not be defined forever by her past.

But it was also there that she found love as a youth in Montreal. Not from her parents, but from a female friend, which she describes in the picture painting, bright sounding "Persephone," one of Russell's best songs.

Much to Russell's credit, she did not dwell in the doldrums of defeat. As a performer, she was most engaging with serious comments about people needing to be together and overcoming society's ills, while also joking around. To say that she knows of what she sings (sometimes in French) was obvious.

Only two songs during the 90-minute set were not from "The Outside Child." Russell plucked "All of the Women" from Our Native Daughters, a quartet consisting of Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Amythyst Kiah and Russell, which put out one much-praised album in 2019. She ended the night with the most mainstream song of the night, a cover of Tracy Chapman's "Talkin' Bout a Revolution."

Enough cannot be said about Russell's backing quartet. She said they were all capable of being leads. Drummer Beth Goodfellow may be comfortable in the jazz realm, but she provided just the right touch time and time again. That was particularly true when she went to the tom toms. Lead guitarist Maddy Fer provided the sharp lines when needed. And then there was the fiddle/cello combo of sisters Chauntee and Monique Ross respectively. Chauntee's violin playing was just under the surface numerous times, while Monique ably gave the music its bottom.

And credit goes to Russell, who added clarinet to the mix on many songs, for letting them play out, providing the proper coloration to the music.

An added bonus was opener Kyshona Armstrong. Being a musician apparently is a second career for the South Carolina native, who has called Nashville home for eight years. Armstrong offered a winning combination of having a commanding voice fully comfortable in a few different styles from soul to folk-tinged sounds, being a good storyteller very comfortable on stage and penning a bunch of uplifting songs. She rightfully joined Russell for a few songs at the end.

In a way, Armstrong provided a sharp contrast to what was to come with Russell and her heartbreaking material. What they both had in common though was supplying a night of intense, but somehow ultimately joyful, resilient music that showed the triumph of human nature.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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