Words by: Jim Welte | Images by: Mr. Digby
Alice Russell :: 03.24.09 :: Yoshi's :: San Francisco, CA
In the past three years, a trio of previously unknown British soul singers has taken the music industry by storm. One of them is a supremely gifted trainwreck, while the other two are more reserved breakout talents. Between them, they have garnered eight Grammys and sold a whopping 17 million records.
None of them is named Alice Russell, but ears will be blessed if the pint-sized, 33-year-old British beauty gets even a fraction of the attention bestowed on her younger compatriots Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Adele. In the first of two sold-out shows at Yoshi's SF, Russell was both classy and sassy, proving that she has range and raw power in her marvelous voice. More than anything, she made her mark as a serious artist who doesn't take herself too seriously.
Russell is no rookie, having released two excellent solo albums and two collections of remixes, rarities and collaborations over the past five years, as well as a bevy of tracks with the likes of Quantic Soul Orchestra, Bah Samba and Nostalgia 77. In a 90-minute set, Russell delved into songs from each of her releases but leaned heavily on her recent Six Degrees Records release, Pot of Gold. Her backing band was led by Russell's co-writer and producer TM Juke (Alex Cowan), as well as multi-instrumentalist and backup singer Mike Simmonds. They were joined by San Francisco-based The Park, a stalwart three-piece rhythm section comprised of Derek Taylor (drums), Josh Lippi (bass) and Ben Schweir (keys), who have backed Russell on all of her American treks in recent years.
The night began with an opening set from Paris-born, Nigeria-raised singer-songwriter Asa, who played a set of perfectly pleasant but not terribly compelling acoustic tunes. The music fell somewhere between "Redemption Song" and Tracy Chapman but Asa's banter with the crowd, including an impromptu birthday jingle for a woman named Blue, was more engaging than the music itself. The set closed strongly, however, on the back of playful, stripped down versions of two classic Nina Simone gems, "Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter" and "Feelin' Good."
Russell took the stage in a shimmery bronze dress, while her band wore mostly white. Simmonds, a portly fellow whom Russell later quipped has "sausage fingers but can still sing like a bird," kicked off "Two Steps" on violin. The bouncy track had Russell waxing playful about taking "two steps forward and 10 steps back" in her amorous affairs. A few songs later, "Hold On Tight" was downright funky, with Cowan playing a guitar riff that sounded similar to the Detroit Emeralds' "Baby Let Me Take You In My Arms," a track sampled by De La Soul for the 1989 hit "Say No Go."
Throughout the set, Russell and company proved themselves quite resourceful, tweaking arrangements of many songs to account for the lack of the horn section that appears on every track of Pot of Gold - Schweir and Simmonds filled in the horn passages with swirling organ and strings, respectively. On the jaunty "Let Us Be Loving," Simmonds picked his electric violin like a mandolin as Russell sang about persevering after a failed romance.
In the jazz club-style venue with tables and chairs leaving nary a space to dance, Russell gently tried to coax the crowd to its feet, referring to a possible "movement of movement." A handful eventually made their way to the outer reaches to spread their limbs. It was the way Russell enticed them to do so that was most appealing about the singer as a performer: she was charming and witty but also real and unpretentious.
The inhibited confines of Yoshi's seemed ready to burst when Cowan played the opening licks of The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army," a track Russell covered with Nostalgia 77 and has performed live for years. She nailed the song's urgency, and her band was locked into its groove. Similarly bombastic tracks, like closer "Dressed To Impress," let Russell show that she's got as much vocal power as anybody.
But, it was on more subtle ballads that she soared. The topper was "All Alone," a wistful number that featured lines like, "Never meant this song to happen but there you go/ Don't go holding on too tight/ It'll never ever grow." Her fellow British divas have loads of talent and promising careers ahead of them but we're going to hold on tight to Ms. Russell, thank you very much.
And just in case you haven't heard this yet...
For more on Alice Russell check our exclusive feature/interview on "A New Age of Funk & Soul" here.
Alice Russell is on tour now, details available here.
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