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Tradition with a twist: Soaring voice brings glad tidings
Tom Hawthorn, The Globe and Mail (Canada)
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Just back from Europe, Nanaimo singer's holiday concerts draw a devoted following.

VICTORIA -- The crowd at the sprawling pub in Amsterdam was raucous and
inattentive. Perched on stage before a keyboard, the singer Allison
Crowe thought to herself, "Okay, let's win them over."

She knew just the number.

She started into I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), an
impassioned belter about a heartbreaker that Aretha Franklin put on the
charts. By the time Ms. Crowe reached the breathy chorus, she had
startled the Dutch from their beer. They were listening, no doubt some
with their mouths agape. She has that effect on the unsuspecting.

The Nanaimo singer completed her first European tour in November, and
spent the first week of December performing in Ontario, before a
one-show jaunt to Bowling Green, Ohio.

Since then, she has performed four seasonal shows in British Columbia,
including two concerts on the weekend at St. Andrew's United in her
hometown. Those who missed the church concerts can catch a Tidings
performance taped two years ago to be broadcast at 9 p.m. tomorrow on
the A-Channel in Victoria.

In a season known for mistletoe and mulled wine, Ms. Crowe is herself
becoming a Christmas institution on Vancouver Island.

Her Tidings concerts blend traditional carols such as Silent Night and O
Holy Night
with the singer's ambitious roster of favourites.

"It's a time of the year when I get to throw in whatever covers are fun
to play," she says. "Playtime for me."

She spikes a holiday punch of carols with a dash of Beatles (In My
Life
), a splash of Joni Mitchell (River), a dollop of Sarah McLachlan
(Angel), and a heaping helping of Leonard Cohen (Hallelujah). A
less-skilled vocalist could make a hash of such challenging numbers. Ms.
Crowe always delivers a gourmet rendition.

Her renditions have won Ms. Crowe a dedicated following. Members of her
fan club recently received a limited-edition DVD, also titled Tidings,
including all four of those numbers recorded live off-the-floor at the
Turtle Recording studio in the Vancouver suburb of White Rock.

The cover of the release is a family photograph of Alli, as she is known
to friends, at about age 3, climbing the ladder of a slide in the
playground at the Departure Bay ferry terminal in her hometown.

It was an age to be singing along to the Little Mermaid, and the girl
did so with gusto. She learned the lyrics to The First Noel and watched
the Charlie Brown and Garfield Christmas specials on television. A solo
performance of the flapper-era Jada Jada at a kindergarten assembly
marked her public debut. Musical theatre in elementary school gave her
even more confidence on stage. By age 15, she was talking her way into
The Queens, a Nanaimo hotel known for its rowdy music and rowdier
crowds.

"I would go to open-mike nights, or go up on stage with a band. Then I
started getting gigs there. It used to be real fun getting the
audience's attention and everyone goes crazy and stuff like that."

Ms. Crowe's dark, powerful voice won immediate notice. Critics hauled
out the thesaurus in search of worthy adjectives -- chilling,
spine-tingling, otherworldly. Her manager, Adrian du Plessis, who as an
investigator had been the scourge of thieves working the Vancouver Stock
Exchange, worked tirelessly to promote the singer. It was said her voice
left him speechless -- a rare affliction for the fast-talking dynamo.

The signing of a contract with a major record company seemed only a
matter of time.

The big label breakthrough fell apart in New York two years ago, after
Ms. Crowe was advised to fire her manager and dump her two bandmates.
Plans were prepared for the creation of a new, more marketable image,
but the singer had already lost interest.

"Whatever it was," she says now, "it was not what I was going to do."

She returned to Vancouver Island wiser and with a greater appreciation
for her independence. "I'm not going to forego my soul," she says,
giggling.

Instead of the big-time release she had anticipated, Ms. Crowe returned
to the small clubs for the intimate solo concerts at which she had
originally built her reputation.

The first stop on last month's Sea of a Million Faces tour was at St.
Andrew's College in Dublin, Ireland, where she marked her 24th birthday
with an informal performance for students. She then made her European
concert debut at Bewley's Cafe Theatre in Dublin, followed by shows at
Bush Hall in London and jazz clubs in Paris, Munich and Frankfurt.
"Pretty much full crowds. Ovations. It was crazy," she said. After a
holiday break, Ms. Crowe will resume writing songs for a new compact
disc, to be recorded and released next year. Among the songs to be
showcased is her own Skeletons and Spirits, a haunting number that has
become a staple of her live shows. She will once again perform with a
band and plans on another European tour.

"More and more and more of the same," she promises, "only bigger."

Special to The Globe and Mail