The show opened dramatically with a spoken introduction to ‘Little Rebirth’ (from Allison Russell’s award-winning debut album, ‘Outside Child’), set to swirling keyboards and droning viola. In fact, several songs were preceded by these prologues. I promise you it wasn’t cheesy, it was captivating. Stevie Smith (CEO of the AMAUK) who was in the audience, said to me afterwards that, “As an atheist, I imagine that this is what going to church is like, a religious experience.”
Allison and her band are over from the USA to perform at The Long Road, and this gig at the Omeara in the Borough Market area of London, will have warmed them up nicely. The audience was not like the usual Americana audience of gigs I go to – less grey hair and more diverse. They must have been well-organised fans, because it sold out weeks before the date. Allison name-checked one of them she had bumped into on the way in who had been coming to her gigs from when she first started performing 20 years ago.
The second song, ‘Quasheba, Quasheba’ was from the 2019 album ‘Songs of Our Native Daughters’ (a musical collective which included Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla), hinting perhaps that she might draw on her back catalogue from Birds of Chicago and Po’ Girl. But the set stuck to songs that were mostly from ‘Outside Child’.
The all-women band sang backing vocals and played keyboards, guitar and viola – with Allison on occasional banjo and clarinet. The songs on the album are performed by a more conventional line-up that includes drums and bass, but the songs are so strong you hardly notice their absence. Where additional rhythm was needed, this was provided by the banjo and various percussion instruments, played with the keyboardists’ spare hand, the viola player sometimes adding a pulse when she wasn’t providing creative drones.
Many of the songs on ‘Outside Child’ have been inspired by Allison becoming a mother and finding a new life away from her abusive adoptive father in her teenage years. This comes out clearly on the raucous ‘4th Day Prayer’ and the uplifting ‘Persephone’ which she told us was about her first love at the age of 15. But sometimes it is just simmering in the background, as on the scorching ‘The Runner’. The audience was ecstatic by the time she got to her recent single ‘You Are Not Alone’ (which features Brandi Carlisle on the recording), and at Allison’s instigation the audience enthusiastically sang along to the chorus of “We have the love”.
The support act, Lady Nade, nicely set the scene with her very personal songs, exemplified by ‘Complicated’ which she described in her wonderful Bristolian voice, that although the song was borne out of grief it was about “turning darkness into light”. She has a mailing list if you want to keep in touch – and as well as hearing about her music you will receive a meal recipe every month!
That certainly was some gig. Allison Russell was as impressive as ever and such a great band – with guitarist Mandy Fer being a perfect rocking out foil.