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Reviews - torrid quarry
Trevor Raggatt, Wears The Trousers (UK)
October 18, 2005
 Allison Crowe
 Live At Wood Hall
 Rubenesque Records



Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Crowe’s personal mantra
adorns the cover of her latest album. That simple maxim
is “Why music?” “Why breathing?”, so personal is her
connection with the music she writes and performs. This
new record, her fourth in total, documents a two-night
stand at the Robin & Winifred Wood Recital Hall in Victoria,
British Columbia in March 2005, taking in twenty-three
songs performed live in front of a small but fortunate
audience. Crowe was born and raised on Vancouver Island
in Nanaimo, a town with two prior claims to musical fame
– firstly, for having a deep heritage in brass band music
stemming from its coal mining history, and secondly, for
being the birthplace of jazz chanteuse, Diana Krall.
Fortunately, Allison Crowe has forsaken the former
influence and, despite being a talented piano player and
singer and sharing stages with Krall, has taken a different
musical route and mines very separate sonic seams. Her
piano playing often perfectly complements the mood of
each song, whether she is tracing delicate arpeggios and
melodies or delivering bombastic chordal backing.

This double-disc set amply demonstrates Crowe’s profound
skill both as a writer and as an interpreter of other peoples’
songs, the performances dripping with emotion as she
wrings meaning out of both the words and music. Her
own compositions range from simple, tender love songs
(There Is, By Your Side) to insightful social commentary
(Whether I’m Wrong, Disease), and all are delivered in a
contemporary style. However, it is perhaps her cover
versions that are most revealing of Allison Crowe, and a
diverse selection they are too, ranging from her personal
favourites and influences (Tori Amos’ Playboy Mommy,
DiFranco’s classic Independence Day and A Murder Of One
by Counting Crows) to showtunes Bill and I Dreamed A
Dream
from Les Miserables, via the oft-covered Imagine
and Me & Bobby McGee. It’s the Counting Crows cover
that really highlights her skills as an interpreter. Crowe
strips the song back to its skeleton and delivers a
performance that completely convinces. In her version,
the refrain “All your life is such a shame, shame, shame/
All your love is just a dream, dream, dream/Open up your
eyes” is utterly divorced from the original’s lightly hopeful
interpretation, becoming instead a cry of pure despair from
a heart that can see clearly the life which she is missing.
It’s a heart-rending tour de force.

Live At Wood Hall easily holds the listener’s attention
throughout its near 110-minute duration, but whilst it has
certain claims on the status of masterpiece, it is perhaps
a flawed one. Although Crowe’s vocal ability and accuracy
are beyond reproach (her use of portamento to attain
certain notes is exquisite and has a hugely powerful effect
that she wisely resists overusing), there are moments
where she fails to reach the odd high note. However, this
is completely forgivable in the live context of the album.
Larry Anschell’s production and engineering serve to give
a transparent and intimate document of the concerts –
this is no ProTool’d and AutoTuned plastic pop opus but a
real musician creating a real performance. Where Crowe’s
tuning is a little errant, it is not because of a lack of
ability, but rather because raw emotion seems to
overwhelm the technical aspects of the delivery. Another
nice technical touch is that all of the applause and intros
are recorded as separate tracks, thereby allowing the
listener to edit them out with some nifty programming if
they so wish.

The greatest difficulty with Crowe’s singing is perhaps
most obvious on the Jerome Kern/PG Wodehouse
showtune, Bill. While hers is a magnificent interpretation,
bringing the song slap bang into the 21st Century, it also
over-emphasises her extraordinary vibrato, a technique
that is usually used subtly to bring additional depth to a
performance. However, when Crowe switches that internal
button, it is anything but subtle. Very rapid, deep and with
a “square-wave” quality, she turns it on and off like a
tremolo effect pedal rather than fading it into sustained
passages. On initial listens, this can be rather distracting
– too often I was listening to the vibrato rather than the
music – but subsequent auditions lessen the shock of the
new. A flaw, true, but not a fatal one!


Overall, Live At Wood Hall is a worthy document of a pair
of extraordinary performances. More than that though, it’s
an album that suggests that this young woman from an
obscure mining town in Canada is only at the beginning of
a long and successful career.

- Trevor Raggatt