Singer-songwriter Allison Russell brought her "Outside Child" and open book to The Ark


Allison Russell by Marc Baptiste

Photo by Marc Baptiste

Singer-songwriter Allison Russell seeks out what she calls the “hidden canon” of the oral tradition: the songs, stories, lore passed on through time, primarily from and for women. Ann Arbor's The Ark is one of those places where the hidden canon has been voiced frequently for a very long time, and Russell’s concert there on February 25 felt like the perfect place to carry on that tradition.

SistaStrings, a Milwaukee-based sister duo, opened the evening. The pair produced syrupy harmonies with the violin and cello, topped with the soulful voices of Chauntee and Monique, who grew up in the church. Their gospel influences mixed perfectly with their classically trained backgrounds and an overall R&B sound. In between songs, the two told embarrassing childhood stories of forgetting to put on underwear and flashing the church parking lot, and they confessed there was a little bit of whiskey in their tea. The sisters commanded the room, and the audience sat in awe, often bursting in standing ovation during or after songs.

After a brief intermission, Chauntee and Monique came back on stage as members of Allison Russell’s all-female band, except for a special guest on the piano, Russell’s brother-in-law—though she called him an honorary woman for the night. There was clear feminine energy in the room as Russell sang and watched her band members in awe throughout the evening. 

Russell told the audience her story of surviving abuse, and she made clear she carries survivor’s joy throughout her life, community, and chosen family. She was born in Montreal, the daughter of a Grenadian father and teenage mother who struggled with undiagnosed schizophrenia and lost Russell to foster care. Later, when her mother remarried, the man adopted Allison and became both her adoptive father and abuser.

She played songs mostly off of her latest album, Outside Child, which explored themes of survival, community, and love. One of the songs Russell played, “Persephone,” recounts her first experience with what real love is: something consensual, safe, and of nonviolence.

Russell invited JT Nero, her husband and Birds of Chicago bandmate, onstage to perform a song together. The love between the two was felt throughout the room as they shared a microphone and sang “Joyful Motherfuckers,” the last song on Outside Child.

Allison Russell brought her magic to Ann Arbor and left the audience feeling a sense of community, wrapped together in her trance.

Katy Trame is a student, poet, public library associate for Pulp, and music writer for The Michigan Daily.