Montreal native and Nashville resident Allison Russell came to ACL’s attention with her standout performance as part of Our Native Daughters at the Americana Music Festival a couple of years ago. We knew then it was only a matter of time before she came to the ACL stage on her own, and once the Birds of Chicago singer’s Grammy-nominated solo debut Outside Child arrived last year, we knew that time had come – especially since it was our 1000th taping (as officially declared by Austin mayor Steve Adler at the top of the show). Russell’s vision of roots music uses joyful noise to confront subjects like emotional and sexual abuse, systemic racial and gender bias, and the ongoing damage done to and by a culture that refuses to learn from its mistakes (and the connection between those things) – a timely message, as the taping occurred the night after the horrific Uvalde school shootings. Fronting a distinctively structured band, including guitarists Joy Clark and Mandy Fer, cellists Larissa Maestro and Monique Ross, violinist Chauntee Ross, drummer Elizabeth Goodfellow, and her own banjo and clarinet, Russell brought down the house.
Using incense to bless the proceedings, Russell opened with the percussion-and-vocal driven “Hy-Brasil,” a powerful invocation of the African diaspora and its trials around the world. Chills thus induced, Russell led her band into “The Runner,” a more straightforward but compelling folk rocker that especially soared when the backing vocals and strings wailed in unison. “You can’t steal my joy,” she asserted, which became essentially the theme of the evening. She told a story about how in her hometown of Montreal she ran away from familial abuse, hearing the sounds of freedom from Austin City Limits (beaming in from Vermont), while finding her first love. That led, of course, was “Persephone,” leading to a graceful performance of her popular song about finding solace from suffering in the arms of young love. The strings got louder and the rhythms peppier for “The Hunters,” another struggle with difficult situations to which Russell herself – singing in French as well as English – couldn’t resist dancing. Keeping the beat going, Goodfellow, whose versatility is the band’s secret weapon, laid down a funky groove, during which Russell insisted she “couldn’t wait one more minute to introduce you to this goddess circle,” which she proceeded to do. It was all a set-up for “4th Day Prayer,” a swampy, gospel-infused anthem of defiance against a society that won’t confront the role systemic abuse contributes to its own collapse. “We are not alone,” she noted. “We are more than the sum of our scars,” and the song proved it.
The strings, Goodfellow’s percussion and Clark’s acoustic guitar then created a spooky atmosphere as their leader retrieved her banjo for the minor keyed “All of the Women,” an attempt to find survivor’s joy in continued cultural deficits and unimaginable tragedy. “We believe that music, shared like this, is…creative communion, an essential service that helps build up our empathy,” Russell asserted. “Because our lack of empathy has a body count, and it has to stop.” It was a powerful, well-received moment, brought home by Fer’s angry guitar skronk, Russell’s keening clarinet coda and the crowd’s enthusiastic response. Russell retained her banjo for “Little Rebirth,” a haunting tune that, despite being an original, sounds like an ancient, recently discovered folk song, given a magnificent vocal by its writer.
“This is the first anniversary of the release of Outside Child,” Russell noted as she invited her co-author, Birds of Chicago partner and spouse JT Nero to the stage for their ballad “Joyful Motherf*****s,” a song that yearns for a better world and reiterates that, as dark as some of these songs get, Russell never gives up on hope. The jazzy “Poison Arrow” continued with that hopeful vibe, before the group deviated from Outside Child to visit Russell’s work with Our Native Daughters. “I want to send this song out for all the grieving families in Texas tonight,” she said by way of introducing “You’re Not Alone.” The song began with celli and Russell’s banjo, as the rest of the band eased its way in to give the love song – for a child, a significant other, or the whole human race, however anyone chooses to take it – a special charge as everyone made the rounds with their solos.
Russell continued her family affair, bringing on her daughter Ida Maeve Lindsay for the gorgeous and uplifting “Nightflyer,” her breakthrough hit and an audience favorite. The band went immediately a reprise of the chorus of “4th Day Prayer,” with Russell re-introducing the band and ending the set with a final few “ooh-ooh’s.” But that wasn’t all, as the audience hadn’t had enough. Russell and her chosen family of musicians returned with the intense Native Daughters track “Quasheba, Quasheba,” an exploration of genealogical hardship and how to be a good ancestor. Following that lesson in how scars still hurt, Russell sent us back out into the night with a benediction: a gentle, exquisite cover of Sade’s “By Your Side.” It perfectly ended one hell of a show, a master class in how to make music of consequence. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.