Adrian Chamberlain, The Times Colonist
Monday, November 25, 2002
What: Allison Crowe
Where: Young Auditorium, Camosun College
When: Nov. 23
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What makes Nanaimo's Allison Crowe stand out from battalions of other emerging female singer-songwriters?
She, as many of them, specializes in confessional pop ballads -- often with dark, angst-ridden lyrics. She, too, has been influenced by that high priestess of confessional ballad singers, Sarah McLachlan, not to mention Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos.
If there is a single element distinguishing this 21-year-old, it is her voice. It's so darned impressive, I'm going to call it "the voice." Crowe's singing is tremendously powerful; almost operatic. When she digs into a sustained note, as she so often does, the voice is huge, rounded, with a dark timbre.
If listening to the garden-variety pop princess is like drinking insipid white wine (the kind restaurants like to call "house wine"), then Crowe is akin to sipping the richest of brandies.
And she knows how to use the voice. It was most apparent twice Saturday night, when Crowe, accompanied by bassist David Baird and drummer Kevin Clevette, played a well-received concert to a sold-out hall at Camosun College. During her version of Jewel's Who Will Save Your Soul, Crowe held a soaring note for a long, long time, finally allowing a suggestion of vibrato creep in, easing off, then adding vibrato once more.
Her flashiest achievement in the breath control department was another cover, Sarah McLachlan's Angel. Once again, Crowe dug into an impossibly powerful sustained note, eventually flip-flopping into a melismatic cadenza. I've seen her do it before; it's a crowd-pleaser, theatrical to the point of almost being a party trick -- and yet it's incredibly soulful. Whether by instinct or training, Crowe sings from the diaphragm in a manner that gives her admirable control, breadth and consistency.
Angel and Who Will Save Your Soul were her most successful interpretations of other people's songs. A brisk version of Me and Bobby McGee -- faithful to Janis Joplin's phrasing and shifting into double-time at the end -- came off like an unremarkable bar-band standard. Crowe put her own wistful stamp on her final encore, Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, although it still seemed a stretch. Elsewhere, her take on Pearl Jam's Indifference was interesting only because her own compositions are much superior by comparison.
Aside from the voice, Crowe's songwriting may be her greatest strength. Her best songs -- restless ballads such as Midnight or the driving Philosophy -- reveal a natural talent with a gift for melody and structure.
It's true her lyrics sometimes wallow in the sort of bleak baroque existentialism that fascinates teenagers who dress in black and dye their hair to match. There are arguably too many abstract references to unspoken pain and the darkest of mysteries. This may change as Crowe matures.
Besides her singing is so passionate and her piano playing so strong and rhythmically secure, one suspects she could successfully substitute Chinese fortune cookie slips for lyrics.
Crowe is well supported by her bassist and drummer, although it's a testament to her talent that she seems equally convincing playing and singing on her own. This is one big, raw, passionate talent.
One quibble -- Crowe might want to consider editing her giggly onstage banter, which tends to go on too long and breaks the mood.
A Nanaimo jazz duo - trumpeter Rebecca Hennessy and guitarist Henry Alcock-White - opened the concert, joined by bassist Baird. These young musicians are at an early stage in their career. Indeed, Hennessy told the audience it was their first real "listening concert" as they usually sing and play in restaurants.
Although seemingly a touch nervous, Hennessy sang in a pleasant, unpretentious style. Louis Jordan's The Chicks I Pick Are Slender, Tender and Tall was a cheeky choice for Alcock-White although the guitarist - here singing lead - might have loosened up and had more fun with it.
A touch tentative, but promising nonetheless.