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If you’re looking for a working definition of the manufactured musical genre that’s usually called Americana, you might have found it during singer-songwriter Allison Russell’s sold-out show at Third Man Records’ Blue Room on Thursday night. Without a doubt, Americana isn’t a genre or a style of music, in the sense of those words meaning that it emerged organically from a longstanding tradition. Americana is a sensibility and a view of musical, racial and class history that’s not limited to the American experience. 

Because the borders of Americana are so slippery, it makes sense to suggest that Americana didn’t exist 50 years ago, despite its obvious affinities with country-rock, soul music and so-called roots music — all of which did shape popular music in the 1970s. In some ways, Americana gets used as a convenient fallback position that enables musicians to simulate authenticity for an audience that can be remarkably uncritical about the complexity of the issue.

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For Russell, a Canadian-born woman of Scottish, Canadian and Grenadian descent who has worked with similar cosmopolitan innovators like Rhiannon Giddens, the contradictions of her music speak to her audience. Her first solo album, this year’s critically lauded Outside Child, addresses issues of race, gender and class, and her music owes debts to everyone from Joni Mitchell to the Memphis producer Willie Mitchell, the latter of whom produced proto-feminist soul by 1970s singer Ann Peebles. 

Russell’s album is a notably original work, and her band showcased commitment to the songs. The ensemble featured three acoustic string players, two electric guitarists and a bassist and drummer. Russell performed on clarinet and banjo. When two of her bandmates on double bass joined with her violinist, the resulting soundscapes were deep and slightly ominous. Some of her compositions echoed soul, as on the superb Outside Child song “4th Day Prayer,” and her guitarists played very minimally, with virtually no licks and no solos.

The lack of instrumental flamboyance in Russell’s music points to a substantial difference between her work and, say, Joni Mitchell’s. When Mitchell employed funk-jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius on her 1976 album Hejira, the effect was startling, and it added focus to music that was already eccentrically shaped and dauntingly complex. Still, Russell’s songs, like Mitchell’s, sometimes evoke the isolation of vast spaces. The band did more than back up Russell, but what she brings to Americana isn’t sonics. She’s essentially a singer-songwriter, and her themes find affirmation in how strongly her audience identifies with her struggles.

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Russell is a very elegant stage performer, and she’s also a remarkably unaffected, natural frontperson. She’s a fine singer who knows how to phrase, and she reaches for high notes with utter confidence. She performed “Persephone,” a song from Outside Child that is about her experiences with homelessness in Montreal. It’s one of her most powerful songs, and her reading drew an impassioned response from the audience, who hung on every syllable. Interestingly, Russell also dipped into Americana-rap on one tune, which suggests she might explore more modernist production techniques in the future. 

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Margo Price, one of the most celebrated of current Americana artists, came out and incorporated herself into the band as an additional singer on “Nightflyer.” Russell also brought on her musical and life partner J.T. Nero, who performed with her in the duo Birds of Chicago.

It was a satisfying performance, even if it was a bit static; there was never a moment when you felt like the musicians were pushing back at the structures Russell has created. That’s not a knock — Russell is a major talent, and her band played tactfully and often beautifully. It was, indeed, an evening that brought forth the contradictions of one of the era’s dominant non-genres. Can Americana innovate within tradition in the fundamental way that Willie Mitchell and Joni Mitchell did a half-century ago? To answer that question, you’d have to think hard about the relationship between populist and elitist art, and Russell’s music seems like a good place to start pondering that dichotomy.

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