Allison Russell at Studio TD: “This is a call and response song, but you don’t have to do anything because consent is sexy"

On the rainy eve of Friday, March 15th, soulful singer-songwriter Allison Russell graced her motherland of Montreal at Studio TD. Russell’s presence in the music industry has flourished within the last few months following the release of her second studio album The Returner on September 8th, 2023 and Grammy win for her song, “Eve Was Black” in February. Russell has since gained significant praise for the album's integrity to its “expression of black liberation,” self-love and trust in life’s journey. What has been eye-opening to those following Russell’s career is that as the artist’s fame has prospered, her drive to create music ingrained with core values of equality, justice, and positive change, has only strengthened. The Returner Tour is a gratifying illustration of Russell’s consistent advocacy. 

Initially supporting Hozier’s Unreal Unearth Tour, The Returner Tour has traversed across the United Kingdom, United States, and now seeps into Canada. The energetic and colourful show is backed by an all-female band composed of independent artists and tour musicians Elenna Canlas on keys, Ganessa James on guitar and bass and Caoi de Barra on drums. 

Introducing the evening with a transformational performance was Indigenous Oji-Cree artist Aysanabee, a member of the Sucker Clan of the Sandy Lake First Nation. If audiences had not yet had the pleasure of encountering Asynabee’s gut-wrenching vocals and deep-cut lyricism, Friday’s performance would have left them in a sea of disbelief. Aysanabee’s set redefined the art of soulful music; his soul was quite literally dealt out to each listener for them to cradle gently. His solo rendition of the originally collaborative track “Come Out” featuring Raye Zaragoza, pushed boundaries in the vocalist's tone, pulling the audience into his realm of heartbreak through his deepened, harsh vocalization. While his honest performance surrounding Indigenous rights, heartbreak and trauma offered trust and education to listeners, Asynabee’s personable and humorous exchanges with his audience created a surreal connection amongst those in the venue. As Aysanabee walked from the stage during an upheaval of applause, an audience member turned towards their partner and confidently whispered, “I’ll remember that.'' It was evident that Aysanabee could not have led the audience into Russell’s set in a better fashion.  

Palms sweat in anticipation of Russell’s appearance on stage. Five, ten, fifteen minutes went by and the primarily Boomer and Gen X audience longed for a breath as they chanted Russell’s name incessantly. As she finally appeared in all her glory, Russell began her set playing the flute in a snake charmer-like manner, and smoothly transitioned into a tribute song to Montreal, “4th Day Prayer.” Her performance had every audience member clapping alongside the “Queen of Westmount Park”. Russell’s sound reached all four walls of the intimate venue as the singer spoke interchangeably in English and French. Amongst her musicianship, Russell’s kind-hearted demeanour radiated as she took multiple chances to praise every individual on stage, not solely as her band members, but as individuals independent of her tour with their own musical endeavors. 

In silence and tranquility, Russell took a moment to speak regarding her personal experience with abuse within her adoptive home. The bewildered expressions written on audience members' faces illuminated their shock at witnessing the artist before them speaking so sincerely and openly about her trauma. “We can break the cycle,” Russell stated with concrete conviction. It became clear audience tears had been masked by their sway into Russell’s upbeat song which followed. 

Not a single moment throughout The Returner show felt superfluous. Even during a sound issue, Russell made use of her time with her audience. In nearly complete acapella with the exception of a quiet and smooth synth, Russell played a new, unheard song, that gave the Montreal audience a privilege like no other as their ears took in the inaugural performance of, “A Cautionary Lullaby.” 

Russell’s connection with her audience was uncanny, so much so that moments of pure dance and jive were quieter than the silence evoked by Russell’s raw vulnerability. The Returner Tour radiated the colourful tone of Russell’s sound of soul, funk and pure passion, with more than a hint of positive change. A show of Allison Russell’s is truly one never to be left unheard.