Seeing the beautiful, pensive face of Allison Russell around town in recent months, on posters and various promotions for last week’s Campbell Hall concert triggered double takes for some of us. Russell is, after all, a familiar presence around Santa Barbara, having performed here many times over many years. But there are two distinctions: She has previously appeared as part of collective groups versus in solo mode, especially with Birds of Chicago and Po’ Girl; and our typical impression of her is as a vibrant personality onstage, brimming with energy and positive vibes.
This season’s Allison Russell, however, has taken a deeper dive with last year’s stunning and transformative solo album Outside Child, on which she confronted a tragic childhood in her Montreal home, with a mentally imbalanced mother and a physical and sexually abusive, white supremacist father. The album, a centerpiece of her recent concert, garnered Grammy nominations, widespread critical kudos and the love and support of artists including Brandi Carlile, who helped clinch her record deal with Fantasy Records and duetted with her on the anthemic, solidarity-minded “You’re Not Alone.”
At Campbell Hall, in a UCSB Arts & Lectures show that was clearly one of the standout concerts of the year in town, Russell worked through both the pained honesty of her self-examining song cycle and its ultimate theme of triumph over past adversity and empathy for those similarly afflicted.
Playing banjo and clarinet in addition to her captivating wiles as a vocalist, Russell also exercised her natural inclination for collaboration, in obviously friendly cahoots with her five-piece, all-female band. One of the haunting songs on the latest album is “4th Day Prayer,” with a moody instrumental prelude leading into a painful accounting of her abusive upbringing, with the lyric “father used me like a wife / mother turned the blindest eye / stole my body, spirit, pride / he did, he did each night.”
One of the antidote-for-hate songs in her book, and a concert highlight, was the Birds of Chicago tune “Superlover” (recurring lyric: “Tears of rage, tears of grief / From Inglewood to Nairobi, we need a super love”). A new song, “Georgia Rise,” poetically addressed the current contestable political soil of that state while tapping her natural gift for soul/gospel heat (Russell spoke of her desire to have Mavis Staples cover the song. Calling Mavis…)
The concert’s uplifting finale came with the key song “Nightflyer,” on which she sings of being a “midnight rider,” but that “I’m an angel of the morning too / Promise that the dawn will bring you.”
Darkness yields to light in Russell’s masterpiece album, and in concert, she presented serious messages, but also the generous, infectiously ebullient spirit we’ve come to expect.