Allison Russell Brought a Healing Dose of Joy to Austin

By S. Pulse

Allison Russell feels her emotions deeply. Her ability to express those feelings is part of what makes her such a brilliant, Grammy-nominated, recording artist and songwriter. But she does more than offer words. Russell is also a respected and award-winning activist. So, with all the recent heartbreaking events occurring globally, Russell helped bring us all closer together and encouraged audience members to pursue actions to end violence. Russell poignantly launched into “4th Day Prayer”, a very personal song about feeling abuse as a child when others fail to stand-up and protect you. The song comes from Russell’s 2021 debut album “Outside Child”, a Grammy-nominated collection of songs that chronicle her escape from abuse and rise out of homelessness as a youth in Montreal.

In September, Russell released her new album “Returner.” This album veers in a new direction, celebrating one’s reemergence after surviving harrowing challenges. The second song of her set was the title track from that album. “Returner” is a song inspired by Joni Mitchell and her ability to repeatedly return to play shows despite several near-death experiences. The lyrics of the song could also pertain to Russell’s own restoration of joy after facing personal hardships and abuse.

“I’ve come ten million miles. I’m burning. I’m a summer dream,

I’m a real light beam, I’m worthy. Of all the goodness and the love, the world’s gonna give to me. I’ma give it back ten times, people, are you ready?”

Joy was definitely a theme throughout the evening, stating several times that, “Joy is an active resistance.” In an unusual display of vulnerability for a musical artist, she openly shared her thoughts on many topics. Negativity in online media, the importance of not feeding the monster of unconstructive pessimism and rising above to “amplify the voice of peace” were topics she mentioned throughout the evening.

Russell went on to say, “We have to hold the circle of love.,” a sentiment reflected in the pink, blue, and gold circular stage backdrop. It was also reflected in the physical circle she formed with her band members as they moved toward the front of the stage to perform an intimate three-song acoustic performance that included “Persephone,” “Superlove, and “Joyful MF.”

Russell said that she had recently skipped performing “Persephone.” She explained that she does read online comments, “when my soul can handle it” noting that fans wanted to hear this break-out tune from her first album. Recognizing the opening guitar licks, fans erupted with cheers. The song captures the passion of young love and is based on Russell’s first love with a girlfriend who would sneak her into her parents’ home to offer a respite from her abuser. It resonated strongly with the crowd, many who danced and sang along.

The biggest surprise of the evening occurred when Russell called onstage JT Nero (aka Jeremy Lindsay). The crowd recognized JT’s importance and responded with enthusiasm, loud applause, and a push towards the stage. JT is a notable musician, Grammy-nominated songwriter, and producer. He’s also Allison’s partner from her former duo Birds of Chicago, her writing partner, father of her child, and husband. While Russell identifies as queer, she cheekily explained that she was drawn to JT’s “inner goddess.” Together they performed the tune “Joyful MF” with lyrics that reiterated the evening’s underlying theme, an urgent need for a show of positivity.

“If you’ve got love in your heart, but it’s way down in the dark you better let it see the sun, this world is almost done.

Grandma always told me love will conquer hate, I don’t know if it’s too late, I don’t know if it’s too late.

Hey you, hey you, who you think I’m talking to?

Show ‘em what you got in your heart.”

Categorizing music into genres seems purposeless, but Russell is most often placed into the realm of Americana. Her music utilizes two musical components not typical of Americana music, the inclusion of clarinet and French language. Throughout the night, she infused her performance with clarinet riffs and solos. The clarinet serves Russell’s music well as it adds a haunting, melancholy tone with a conversely peppy lilt, like a frown just before it breaks into a smile. Russell also uniquely floods her songs with the soothing sounds of her native French-Canadian upbringing, effortlessly bouncing between English and French. She displayed the beauty of that skill on this night in several songs, including “Joyful MF.”

Her new single “Springtime” is another song peppered with French lyrics. Supported by an upbeat melody, the song’s lyrics tout the joy experienced after facing tough times. The crowd swayed along to the chorus, “So long, farewell, adieu adieu – to that tunnel I went through,” a sassy joy-filled testament to moving on.

A multi-instrumentalist, Russell performed with the banjo several times during the evening. Fittingly, Russell played the banjo as she performed one of the most stirring songs of the evening, “Eve Was Black.” The song is a weighty tune that features a foot-thumping beat with lyrics that call out hateful ideology rooted in slavery. Russell explained that in broader terms, it’s also a song about “dehumanizing people.” The infectious driving beat of the song served as a melodic “call to action” as musically, it physically motivates one to march – hopefully forward, and not in place.

Another song Russell performed that strived to call out evil was the song “Demons.” She asked the audience to participate in a church-like “call and response” approach. The crowd obliged and seemed to enjoy the taunting lyric confronting haters, “Turn them around, look ‘em in the face, they don’t like how sunlight tastes.” Amen!

One of the strongest performances of the night was Russell’s performance of her Grammy-nominated song “Nightflyer” (co-written by TJ Nero). She introduced the song by stating, “This song changed my life.” She went on to praise her friend Brandi Carlile, who has performed the song with Russell and supported her career in many ways, or as Russell noted on this evening, Carlile “she is always kicking down doors for me.” Like Carlile, Russell is also an avid believer in the power of community. Throughout the set she showered accolades on her band members and crew, a group she affectionately calls her “Rainbow Coalition.” The talented band members of the coalition on this evening included Ganessa James, Megan Coleman, and Elenna Canlas.

The concert closed out with Russell performing “Requiem,” a song from her new album that exemplifies the idea of collaboration. On the record, the song is backed by a symphonic composition that features a host of musicians, back-up vocals from Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman (from Prince’s band The Revolution) as well as vocals from Brandi Carlile and Hozier. It also includes more intoxicating French language verses. For this live performance, she brought up folk singer, Austinite, and potion entrepreneur Raina Rose to sing with her. The song, a mournful dirge, was written following a school shooting and features lyrics that cut deeply in light of current events.

“With the love born in the cradle of time,

And fight and fight and fight in the dying light

For all lost and gone forever clementines.”

We thoroughly enjoyed Russell’s set at ACL 3Ten, particularly hearing the songs from the new album. We first saw her live at Luck Reunion in 2022 and have enjoyed watching her meteoric rise. What we adored most about Russell tonight was her open-hearted willingness to share all, a brave move by any artist. Attendees at Austin 3Ten did not just experience her music, they got a glimpse of Russell on a personal level. And the person we experienced on this evening is a lovely and powerful soul whose actions seek to find joy, even in the darkest places.

Check out all our photos from the show on Austin 101.

Set List

  1. 4th Day Prayer
  2. Returner
  3. Eve Was Black
  4. Stay Right Here
  5. Hy-Brasil
  6. Snakelife
  7. Persephone (Acoustic)
  8. Superlove (Acoustic – Birds of Chicago Song)
  9. Joyful MF (Acoustic – Featuring JT Nero)
  10. Shadowlands
  11. Springtime
  12. Demons
  13. Rag Child
  14. Nightflyer (Encore)
  15. Requiem (Encore)
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