Allison Russell starts Pop Montreal on a high note.
The first night of Pop Montreal began on a high note with an unforgettable performance by Allison Russell. To see such a talented and phenomenal singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist in a venue as historical and as intimate as the Rialto theatre was a great privilege.
Three years ago, almost to the day (September 29, 2019) I was at the Rialto theatre, witnessing the illustrious Mavis Staples for POP Montreal. Where I discovered brilliant Montreal artists Hanorah and Clerel.
Tonight’s discovery was another local who brought some fiery funk with her bluesy soul vibe. Supporting artist Magella began her set with some trippy harmonies, which she looped on the spot. Her band played like they were improvising a spontaneous jam session where they fed off each other’s energy. Her keyboardist, who was surrounded by layers of synths, did not stop bouncing for the entire set, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. The band’s enthusiasm was infectious.
My favourite track was the dramatic “Medusa.”
Some artists share their voices, and some share their hearts. Allison Russell does both, and she does it beautifully.
From the moment she stepped onto the stage, before singing her very first note, she exuded a mystical power that resonated throughout the room. And it grew stronger as the evening progressed.
Wearing a delicate, butterfly-printed dress and gold sequined boots, she appeared like a fairytale goddess, illuminating the theatre, and I was entranced.
Allison generously and bravely bared her soul while speaking to us before each song. She described the horrific nature of her childhood physical and sexual abuse by her stepfather and her mother’s neglect in great detail. Shedding light on the background for songs like “4th Day Prayer”, which she opened with.
Although some details were very disturbing, Allison presented herself as a strong and joyful survivor, not a victim. Especially during “You’re Not Alone,” where her all LBGTQ bandmates beamed with pure love for each other.
Her golden-toed boot stomping loudly on the wooden stage floor, echoing through the theatre as her entire body took shape of every note played and sung.
Every lyric was her own truth, as each song revealed layers of profound joys and sorrows.
Before singing “Persephone,” she reminisced about her first love and realization that she was queer. She sang it with so much tenderness and care that I truly felt her adolescent angst.
In addition to being an incredible singer/songwriter, Allison is also a talented musician. Throughout the night, she would casually pick up her clarinet and play it as though it was an extension of her own body.
One of my favourite tracks was “All of the Women,” with its slow and haunting banjo chords.
The crowd all gasped when she sang the bittersweet “Montreal.” And when we showered her with jubilant applause, Allison confessed that she hasn’t been here in four years, hugging herself as she often did when she was overcome with emotion.
When an audience member called out “Quasheba, Quasheba,” she graciously obliged. Often expressing gratitude for all of her chosen family and friends who have helped her on her journey (especially Brandi Carlisle, who “lifted her from poverty”).
“En plus” Allison took one of Fleetwood Mac’s biggest hits and made it entirely her own. Explaining that during the pandemic, while she was under lockdown, she decided to translate “Landslide” into French. I don’t know anyone else who could pull that off, but she managed to make me love the French version as much as the original.
I can honestly say that this was one of the best shows that I have ever seen.
Allison has that rare gift where she can sound vulnerable yet defiant. She is poetic, passionate and one hell of a storyteller. Watching Allison convey her deeply personal thoughts that originated from trauma and pain is like witnessing alchemy in its purest form.
“I am the mother of the evening star
I am the love that conquers all“(Nightflyer)
Her first solo album “Outside Child” was nominated for multiple Grammys and has won many awards in the UK and Canada.
Review – Annette Aghazarian
Photos – Steve Gerrard