The long sleeves of Allison Russell’s sequinned mesh crop top are caught in the workings of her banjo. She doubles up in laughter as bassist Caoimhe Hopkinson tries to unwind her. This is something Russell does a lot (doubling up and getting caught up); an infectious, energized, generous performer giving her all, she is a compelling frontwoman but tonight her stage markings are firmly stuck at the back of stage in a line with guitarist and bassist whilst Caoi de Barra’s drums are out front, challenging the norm. This is Russell’s solo show, but she heaps credit on the band, their solo projects and achievements elsewhere, and makes it clear by stage positioning that she is part of it – “WE are the Rainbow Coalition” she says. So much so, that part way through the set she introduces Joy Clark, bassist performing her own song, the inspirational ‘Lesson’.
Allison Russell is a veteran of a handful of bands including Birds of Chicago, Our Native Daughters and the seven albums with Po’ Girl while in her twenties, “One night we dressed up as a nun rock band called the Bad Habits and told the audience that Po’ Girl couldn’t make it, we started playing ‘Smoke on water’ and half the audience left” she confides and doubles up again.
I didn’t feel like going out tonight, it was dark, stormy and raining, the Glasgow Underground was not running, and I was having car problems. Then, at one point I recalled that Russell remarked that it always seems to rain when she plays the city – “I played with Hozier in a big tent last summer – it poured down, but everyone had such fun in the mud” then I think yes, it’s only a bit of rain… to come into the warmth of these arrangements was a joy. Russell’s album has some lush ‘70s Philadelphia-inspired orchestration by Sistastrings and it would be nice to see them performed live sometime, but tonight it was good to hear a different take. Without the album’s strings, Elenna Canlas on keys was brought to the fore with some raw, soulful, country licks.
The set was mainly drawn from ‘The Returner’, the latest release on Fantasy Records, with about four tracks from ‘Outside Child’ and ‘You’re Not Alone’ being the only Our Native Daughters’ track. There were many highlights, but two in particular stand out. Midway through, the whole band moved forward and played a short acoustic set in-the-round with harmonies to the fore. They pulled out a version of ‘Persephone’ performed with perfection personified. ‘Demons’ on the album is a bare-bones funk foot stomper that would not have been out of place on Paisley Park in the late ’80s. Tonight it is full of crowd-pleasing humour, preceded by an anecdote about playing it in a cathedral in Dublin, ‘They don’t like how sunlight tastes’ she sings, now using the whole stage, spreading joy through rhythm and sweet melodies, casting off her own, and our, demons. And the message is not lost – as picked out in the cover of ‘Outside Child’ gracing the merch stall ‘All is On Us’.
She is up for all four of the Grammy’s in the Americana and American Roots categories this year. I will be tuning in to the live stream late Sunday 4th Feb rooting for this extraordinary artist’s long awaited formal recognition.