Allison Russell: Live at The Barns At Wolf Trap

Allison Russell

Following the release and international success of her stunning debut solo album, “Outside Child,” in 2021, the Montreal-born and now Nashville-based singer-songwriter Allison Russell very quickly elevated herself to a household name.  Sure, some of us were already familiar with her other musical projects – where she was able to contribute her songwriting and vocals in collaborative settings – such as Birds of Chicago (with husband JT Nero), and the all-female banjo band, Our Native Daughters (with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Amythyst Kiah), but with her solo endeavor, Russell found herself thrust into the spotlight.

Regular readers may recall that “Outside Child” was the recipient of my GDW favorite album for 2021, from an artist I applauded for not only finding a way to articulate this autobiographical depiction of an abusive past, but who used such life experiences to promote a sense of personal triumph over trauma.  Numerous accolades continue to be bestowed upon Russell (including 2 JUNO and 3 GRAMMY nominations), meaning I was clearly not alone sharing such sentiments.  So, when Allison announced a small tour of upcoming 2022 dates back in late October – one of which fell within close proximity of our home – we knew this was a show that we absolutely could not afford to miss.

Just a little over five months after purchasing our tickets, we found ourselves arriving at the historic Barns at Wolf Trap, a beautiful 200+ year old wooden structure on the outskirts of Washington DC.  On a side note, two decades have passed since we last visited this venue, and it truly is pure coincidence that on that particular occasion, we happened to catch another emerging artist by the name of Allison (alt-country star Allison Moorer, and we all know how quickly her career blossomed).  But, back in the present day, we eagerly welcomed a performance from Allison Russell in this prestigious room, and after a solid 1 hour and 40 minutes of music, know too well that lightning shall indeed strike twice – that this is another Allison destined for greater things.

Allison Russell

Opening the festivities on this given evening was Allison’s good friend and Nashville-based singer-songwriter, Kyshona (Kyshona Armstrong).  Gracing the stage with both an acoustic guitar and an incredibly powerful vocal range, Kyshona’s blend of folk-roots and gospel-soul music immediately endeared her to this sold-out building.  Sharing original material from her 2020 album, released just before the onset of Covid-19, she would offer commentary on how prudent, in hindsight, the timing of this album would prove to be – emphasizing her point with the delivery of tracks such as “Fear” and “Listen” from that release. The former music therapist would also perform “Burdens Down” (complete with audience participation), along with a selection of others based around themes of empowerment, overcoming adversity, and finding hope.  An uplifting opening 35 minutes of music that did much more than simply warm up the room, and earned Kyshona a well-deserved standing ovation from those before her.

Following a brief intermission, Allison Russell (vocals/banjo/clarinet) walked onto the stage (to a thunderous reception) with her touring companions, an all-women ensemble of incredibly talented and diverse musicians. Immediately following a rousing version (three tracks in) of her popular single, “Persephone,” Allison would very quickly make the introductions – Beth Goodfellow (drums/vocals), Mandy Fer (electric guitar/vocals), Monique Ross (cello/vocals), and Chauntee Ross (violin/vocals).  She would also take time to honor not only their musical contributions, but spread love of their other projects and bands (Mandy performs with a Pacific Northwest indie rock band called Sway Wild, and the Wisconsin-based Ross siblings perform under the moniker, SistaStrings).  “I always hesitate to say band, because unfortunately I think the word band often implies a hierarchy, and there is no such thing as a hierarchy in our ensemble, or circle of people,” Allison offered. “We’re all a circle tonight. We’re one half, and y’all (audience) are the other half, and just one beautiful, lovely, infinity circle of joyful assembly, energy, communion, creative communion, and I am uplifted in every way.”

Thundering toms and hard-hitting strings signaled the arrival of “Hy-Brasil” as the show-opener, the first of many tracks taken from the “Outside Child” album, followed by the quicker-tempo of “The Runner,” which allowed all five artists to demonstrate their collective vocal harmonies.  “I’ve been pinching myself a lot lately. I have been feeling like I’m walking through a dream. So many good things have happened and it’s overwhelming, and it’s surreal, and I’m not used to it,” Allison shared at the close of the song.  “And if you had told me when I was a 15-year-old runaway sleeping in a cemetery that life could get this good, I wouldn’t have believed you.”  Pausing briefly as the audience responded, Allison was encouraged to continue. “So, I don’t know who needs to hear this tonight, but maybe someone does? Whatever you’re going through, however how bad it feels, know that it does get better.” And making references to her abusive stepfather, and to her childhood friend who taught her that she was worthy of love, would further add, “Know that it is joy you can feel.”

Allison Russell

At two points during the evening, Allison would take time to discuss a songwriting session from a few years ago in Louisiana with Our Native Daughters, and how some of her own album contributions came to life in the early morning hours following those evenings.  She would also strap on her banjo, and delight us with “Quasheba, Quasheba,” and “You’re Not Alone,” as two representatives of those sessions.  Returning to her solo album, I was naturally grateful for the inclusion of “4th Day Prayer” – one of my personal favorites, and one that NPR declared “a track that lands on the silken, Al Green side of Memphis soul sensibilities.”  How can you not be moved by the narrative that is Allison’s mantra, the words that form the chorus? “One for the hate that loops and loops / Two for the poison at the roots / Three for the children breaking through / Four for the days we’re standing in the sun.”  Better yet, flanked by her four companions on stage, the explosive gospel-laced harmonies delivering these lines were potent, and brought each and every hair on the back of my neck to life.

Following an outstanding version of “The Hunters,” Monique’s bass-heavy cello strings silenced the room, before Allison stepped back up to address issues of equality, love, and survivors, then concluding that we all need commitment and determination in order to survive, and that we are, and can be, a loving community if we choose to be.  “This is what I’ve learned,” she would add, lightening the mood once more. “The only reason I have a record label right now is because I ridiculously DM’d Brandi Carlile’s Instagram.  I just knew as I was trying to envision what a solo career would be like, that I’m terrified of the idea of stepping forward into my own name. My own story under my own name. I’m much more comfortable hiding, and that was why I DM’d her Instagram.”

With time winding down, Allison would invite Kyshona to join them all on stage for the closing number, a rip-roaring rendition of the album’s GRAMMY nominated single, “Nightflyer.”  “It’s just unbelievable when I think about what has happened in less than a year,” Allison shared. “The record came out … and I cannot wrap my head around all that has happened … It’s just kinda freaked me out, y’all.”  Cue the applause, and cue the outstanding rendition of this timeless modern-day classic track.  “His soul is trapped in that room / But I crawled back in my mother’s womb / Came back out with my gold and my greens / Now I see everything / Now that I feel everything, Good Lord / What the hell could they bring to stop me, Lord? / Nothing from the earth, nothing from the sea / Not a God Almighty thing.” 

Allison Russell

An electrified room refused to cease applauding and hollering once the musicians took their leave, and of course, with the lights still dimmed, the ensemble returned for an encore performance. As is customary recently, Allison opted to cover the popular Sade hit, “By My Side,” before surprising everybody with an unexpected final number – calling once more for Kyshona to join them, and together, delivering a knockout dual-split-verse cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution.”  A pretty flawless night of music was capped with this powerful conclusion, leaving no doubt as to why Allison’s name is frequently dropped in those GRAMMY and JUNO conversations.  What we have here right now is an artist sitting on the periphery, and the giant leap awaits.  We’re just glad to have had this chance to catch her in such an intimate setting, because rest assured, if either of those music award entities come calling Allison Russell’s name, she’ll be catapulted into the ‘big time,’ and shows of this smaller nature could very well be few and far between.

Set List:

  1. Hy-Brasil
  2. The Runner
  3. Persephone
  4. 4th Day Prayer
  5. Quasheba, Quasheba
  6. The Hunters
  7. All Of The Women
  8. Poison Arrow
  9. Joyful Motherfuckers
  10. You’re Not Alone
  11. Nightflyer (ft. Kyshona)

Encore:

  1. By Your Side (Sade cover)
  2. Talkin’ Bout A Revolution (ft. Kyshona) (Tracy Chapman cover)

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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