Adrian du Plessis & Barry Newman, Cosmic Debris Musicians Magazine: Issue #75
In March, 2000, Tina Ruotsalainen (booking agent for the Queens Hotel) surprised me with a phone call. She had organized a fundraiser for the magazine and had acquired an amazing roster of Nanaimo-area acts who were volunteering their time and talents.
Tina had secured two venues... the Queens Hotel for an evening show and Katz Martini Bar for an earlier acoustic show. To my amazement, Allison Crowe had offered to perform... at both venues!
The big day arrived. Sitting in Katz Martini Bar, I was treated for the first time to Allison's voice and her music.
How can someone so small and young have such a big voice and write such heavy duty songs? ...I thought. The inflections in her piano stylings were so mature too... there was a blues edge in there.
Onstage at the Queens the evening, accompanied by Kevin Clevette on drums and Dave Baird on the standup bass, the dynamics of Allison's music were even more highlighted. I knew this artist had a big future. It was such a privilege and an honour to see and hear her perform at this occasion.
- Barry Newman (editor)
Once upon a time, well, not so many moons ago, in a land not so far away, a young girl stepped forward and sang her heart out, surprising even her parents who had no prior inkling of their daughter's musical voice.
This was Allison Crowe's first perform-ance, in kindergarten at Nanaimo's Cilaire School, singing the chorus to a big hit of the Jazz age, Ja-da (Ja-da Jing Jing Jing!).
Since then, the girl, and her audience, has grown, but the wonder has not diminished.
Following a concert on the mainland this past spring, Vancouver Courier music reviewer Clodagh O'Connell wrote: "The first thing you notice about Allison Crowe is her voice. Rich and dark, it seems to come from a place most singers can only dream of accessing. Then there are the songs ~ filled with raw passion and accompanied by Crowe's eloquent piano playing."
This summer, The Times Colonist labeled Crowe "a mega-talent in the making", pegging the 19-year-old to join such island-bred stars as Diana Krall on the world stage. Music industry veteran Peter Karroll (rocker Bif Naked's manager), places Crowe solidly in a tradition of rock vocalists that includes Carole King and Janis Joplin and enthuses that she is "one of the most amazing vocal talents anywhere today".
Her own love of music is not bound by genres or generations. Aretha Franklin fits comfortably alongside Jann Arden, Mozart operas, Led Zeppelin and "the goddess incarnate" Tori Amos. Asked for the names of her other favourite artists she replies with a list that's impossibly long to summarize ~ or categorize. She highlights Adam Duritz, remarking: "I was inspired to write my own songs by Counting Crows. I listen to them religiously."
As such a range of musical sounds would suggest, Crowe and her trio of Dave Baird (bass) and Kevin Clevette (drums), attract a diverse, and multi-generational concert audience. A highlight of the band's year to date was blowing away a crowd of Pearl Jam fans in Seattle, and this followed a standing ovation earned days earlier at the family celebration that is Nanaimo's Bathtub Days.
The roots of this phenomenon are planted firmly in local soil.
Crowe attended Nanaimo's Woodlands Secondary, where she excelled in musical theatre under Virginia Wylie and Peter Spencer and band taught by Rick Becker. Becker recalls "she brought a lot of humour to the school program. Her levity brought relief to everyone, instead of it all being such a serious pursuit. Allison was willing to try anything - flute, piano, electric bass, and sometimes she played drums. She was always singing. There was always that voice."
Her comedic, as well as vocal, talent shone in the school's production of "Crazy For You". Playing an eccentric British character, she romped through such Gershwin tunes as "Stiff Upper Lip". In a later ensemble showcase, "Once Upon a Mattress", the "true" story behind the Princess and the Pea fairytale, Crowe breathed life into the lead, Winnifred the Woebegone (a role originally played by legendary comedienne Carol Burnett and reprised more recently for Broadway by actress Sarah Jessica Parker).
At Woodlands, Crowe teamed up with drummer Kevin Clevette, a couple of years her senior. Clevette's first high school band teacher and mentor, was Chris Ellis. Ellis made way for Rick Becker who remembers, "Kevin was a real dedicated guy in terms of learning. He was able to put creative ideas into things so that what he was doing was enhancing the sound of the band. When I first met Kevin, he was into more of a heavy rock metal sort of sound. But he would never get stuck in a style, and was willing to try jazz, blues and folk, along with hard rock."
Clevette, now 22, expresses the same openness today: "I like jazz, and still listen to classic rock, The Doors, Led Zeppelin ~ (their drummer) John Bonham. A big influence of mine is Carter Beauford (percussionist for Dave Matthews Band). I try to bring some of what he does to my sound."
Once out of school, Crowe and Clevette enjoyed considerable regional success with "celtic funksters" 4:20 Council, performing frequently during 1998-1999 at venues such as Parksville's Rod & Gun Club, and the Queen's Hotel in Nanaimo. In August 1998, Crowe won the Island Songbird Talent Competition, topping a line-up of 17 other vocalists at the Vancouver Island Exhibition. Booker Tina Ruotsalainen had been quick to notice the remarkable young singer and this led to Crowe also performing solo, most often at Katz, an intimate lounge located in the Harbour City.
In late 1999, a new band, Lucid, was formed with another Woodlands alumni, Dave Baird, and when that group's other members left the scene, (fiddler James Mark to study music at York University, and guitarist Aaron Grant to pursue a solo career), the trio of Crowe, Clevette & Baird began to establish their unique identity.
Baird, 24, brought a new infusion to the mix ~ citing Montreal-bassist Alain Caron, U.K. alterna-rock maestros Radiohead, jazzers Charles Mingus and the Keith Jarrett Trio among his inspirations. A graduate of the renowned jazz program at Malaspina College, Baird lauds the influence of Steve Jones, Malaspina's Music Department Chair: "He's a very encouraging guy, an open mind, and gives you lots of opportunities. He's a really great supporter of music in the community, and of young musicians."
In turn, Jones has praise for his former student (and now band-mate in NMA, a big band, and Decadence, a ten-piece modern jazz band, island-based groups with which Baird performs when he's not on stage or rehearsing with Allison Crowe's trio). Says Jones: "Dave is one of my favourite bass players. I've watched him grow into a multifaceted, eclectic musician, capable of playing in a variety of styles and unusual settings."
With a highly talented and sympathetic rhythm section behind her, Crowe's original, piano-based, songs and her voice have soared, carrying the trio to successively higher accolades in the past year. She thanks Nanaimo piano teacher Lynne Gauthier for her keyboard skills. And her voice, her essential instrument, is kept "well-oiled" through years of training with vocal coach Andrea Bertram (currently the Vice President of the Upper Island Music Festival).
"In a studio of talent, Allison has all the elements of 'giftedness' necessary for success," Bertram observes. "She has innate talent along with the work ethic and open-mindedness to develop it." Bertram says it is Crowe's "mastery of breath control which allows her voice tremendous flexibility" and it's her attitude of accepting challenges rather than seeing obstacles "that has enabled her to explore fully the many facets of what is an exceptional instrument."
That instrument, her voice, has been reaching people, since kindergarten, through music. Why music?
"Why breathing?" replies Crowe.
"6 Songs", the just-released debut EP by Allison Crowe's trio, starts off with "Fade Away", the first song penned by Crowe (when she was 15), and is dedicated to the loving memory of a kindred spirit, Alma Crowe, Allison's grandmother, and a musician, who recently passed from this world. The disc is distributed by indiepool.com to record stores across Canada. It will also be available at the band's upcoming live dates, which include a concert at Victoria's Lucky Bar (date: tba) a feature appearance October 4 (6-8:pm at the Nanaimo street festival launch of the New VI television station (with Diana Krall), and an October 26 showcase at Nanaimo's Bailey Studio. For more info visit www.allisoncrowe.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org
© Copyright 2001, Cosmic Debris Musicians Magazine.