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Allison Russell’s Invitation to A Healing Ceremony

Live at Thompson’s Point, Portland, Maine, August 22

By Dale Henry Geist

Allison Russell wants you to know something: “We are more than the sum of our scars. We are made from the dust of the stars.” Her brief set opening for Lake Street Dive at Thompson’s Point, an outdoor venue in Portland, Maine, followed a precise arc, from tragedy through triumph by means of the redemptive power of art.

Russell, who has been something of an online activist for COVID safety in recent weeks, took the stage in front of thousands of fans who had, without fuss, shown either proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test, and she made sure to acknowledge this during her set.

Accompanied by Larissa Maestro on cello and Mandy Fer on fuzzed-and-reverbed electric guitar, Russell took her place at the mic, swaying to the rhythm, then leaning forward and softly, poetically, sketching the horrors of her childhood before tying them to ancestral violations in the potent lyrics of “Hy Brasil.”

Allison Russell at Thompson’s Point, Photo by Dale Henry Geist

Emerging from the squall of that song’s denouement, Russell spoke of roaming the winter streets of Montréal at 15, terrified of returning to the brutality of her home, and stumbling upon her first taste of love in the arms of a girl. This led into “Persephone,” Russell’s ode to her first love, a love that saved her life, underscored by the sweet caress of Russell’s clarinet solo.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

Before each song, Russell continued spinning her story, a gesture that flowed naturally from her belief in the power of art and storytelling to heal; by sharing her journey with us in poetic terms, Russell was inviting us along, offering to us what healing we could gather.

“The Runner” explicitly connects music to healing in Russell’s own life: she was just a runner on the streets until she “heard that rock’n’roll / outside the South Hill candy store”. The banjo-driven lament “All of the Women” came next, broadening Russell’s sphere of concern to a local streetwalker, and beyond, to “all of the women who disappear.”

Allison Russell at Thompson’s Point, Photo by Dale Henry Geist

From there the band dove into the astonishing “Fourth Day Prayer,” which, in the short space of its rising chorus, explicitly moves from despair through redemption. The swaying and rhythmic clapping of thousands of bodies turned the song into a communal prayer.

The next sentence in Russell’s story was “Poison Arrow,” where she wished for all us “sad and broken travelers” the peace and faith in ourselves that she herself seems to have finally found. 

Introducing her final song, Russell tied the ends of her story into a bow, reminding us that no matter what blows life has dealt us, joy is our birthright. Then she and the band delivered their final benediction of the night with “Nightflyer,” a declaration of an all-encompassing self (“I’m the moon’s dark side, I’m the solar flare / The child of the earth, the child of the air“), inviting us to share her expansive, compassionate vision for human redemption.

Lake Street Dive at Thompson’s Point, Photo by Dale Henry Geist

Lake Street Dive, the headliners, played to rapturous applause from a sold-out crowd in their return to live performance after a long, pandemic-induced hiatus. The band specializes in deep grooves that owe as much to swing as to indie-folk, and the visual focus is their powerhouse lead singer Rachael Price. The set drew heavily from the band’s latest album “Obviously,” which dropped earlier this year.

A park-like waterside venue, thousands of mellow fans, a temperate evening, and the cream of contemporary Americana combined to make for a delicious August evening, despite the lingering shadow of the pandemic.