Allison Crowe returns, bearing gifts of vocal virtuosity and community spirit
By Robert Moyes Boulevard magazine December 2011
Photo by Billie Woods
Musician, songwriter, and vocal virtuoso Allison Crowe, seen here in Berlin, returns to Victoria each December for a popular annual concert, the proceeds of which go to a local charity for disadvantaged teenage girls.
ON A WINTRY December night a crowd assembles at Fairfield United Church to hear celebrated singer-songwriter Allison Crowe, whose vibrato-rich voice soars from arresting to incandescent. This is Crowe’s Tidings show, an annual fundraiser. Songs range from carols to pop tunes like Joni Mitchell’s River as well as some originals.
Contrasting with that vocal virtuosity is her casual, sometimes giddy stage presence, a mix of giggles and stream-of-consciousness commentary. Crowe, a nimble comic, sports an elaborate Scorpio-themed fairy tattoo on her left shoulder. She entertains the audience with stories about watching the food channel or her fondness for the hyper-violent Sons of Anarchy cable hit. Woes of boyfriends past inspire the quip, “I wrote this song after the second greatest break-up of all time.”
After concluding the concert with a killer rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, a concert staple, she’s back for an encore. “Some blues,” calls a voice, and the curly-headed Crowe pauses before gliding into Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man. It starts out as the familiar sultry lament but, enhanced with lithe vocal leaps and embellishments, she revs the soul classic into a scorching declaration of female desire. At the song’s end, as the cheers subside, she asks with a wicked twinkle in her eye, “Was that bluesy enough?”
Crowe grew up in Nanaimo but moved to Newfoundland six years ago when she fell in love. She returns here a few times a year, most notably every December for her Tidings tour. These shows had their beginning back in 2005, when Crowe heard that the Victoria-based Girls Alternative Program (GAP), which helps high school dropouts assailed by poverty, substance abuse, and sexual exploitation, was in crisis. The community-minded Crowe was happy to arrange a two-night performance to raise funds and awareness for GAP (now known as Artemis Place, see artemisplace.org), and it has since expanded into a mini-circuit of seven cities, including Victoria, Nanaimo and Campbell River.
A professional musician for half of her 30 years, Crowe flies below the radar, far away from top-40 radio, refusing to surrender creative autonomy to a recording company only interested in big sales. “Psychically, I just couldn’t go the mainstream route,” says Crowe, who early on had been in negotiations with Sony in New York but walked away from the table when she realized, she says, that she was dealing with cynics more interested in marketing than music.
Instead, Crowe looked to artists like Ani DiFranco and Loreena McKennitt as role models. “It’s about maintaining independence,” she explains. “I’m not interested in the celebrity thing and didn’t want to be packaged… or told what songs to write.”
Crowe has long been connected with a Salt Spring Island-based music promoter named Adrian du Plessis, who initially had gotten her a couple of gigs back in the late 1990s, when Crowe was just 17. Crowe needed a mentor, and du Plessis, realizing just how good this youthful folkie-pop performer was, dropped everything to become her manager. An unusual partnership evolved, one that spawned Crowe’s own label, Rubenesque Records, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. Over that decade Crowe has recorded seven CDs, winning over fans and critics alike. “She’s incredibly talented, with depth and soul and this tremendously powerful voice,” says Adrian Chamberlain, arts writer for the Times Colonist. “She has the ability to take you into the heart of a song… she’s right up there with any singer in Canada.”
Living off the grid of the commercial music business means that Crowe has had to forge her own touring circuit in Canada and, increasingly, in Europe, where she’s better known than in her own country. She goes there twice a year, with a typical tour consisting of 10 gigs: not much compared with what the Rolling Stones do, but gruelling for a solo performer with no entourage. “And I’d rather do 10 great shows than a bunch more half-assed ones,” she adds. “Every city is different of course, but it seems that more people in Europe come out to hear live music. It’s just something they do there as a matter of course.” Crowe’s old-fashioned approach of building up an audience at the grassroots level appeals to Chamberlain, who thinks it’s savvy marketing. “Allison is doing all the right things,” he says. “Her career should have a long life span.”
Crowe has to work much harder in Canada to put her concerts together. The problem, according to du Plessis, is that the Canadian pop music scene is extensively subsidized with government grants and record-label money. If you’re an unfounded outsider, it’s hard to compete. “In Europe, artistry comes before celebrity,” he shrugs. “There they have deeper traditions of culture.”
Despite being leery of the big-money music game, Crowe is poised to make a jump into the movies. A-list director Zack Snyder (300), a huge Crowe fan after his wife showed him a video on YouTube, was hungry for her version of Hallelujah for his surreal epic Watchmen. But at the last minute the song was cut for artistic reasons: the intensity of her singing didn’t fit with the satiric intent of the scene. Crowe was similarly in line to contribute to Snyder’s gothic shocker Sucker Punch only to not make it through to the final cut once again.
But it seems it’s third time lucky for the singer, who is set to participate in an upcoming Snyder blockbuster. Although she refuses to confirm the title, it’s no secret that Snyder just began filming a Superman reboot, Man of Steel. “I’m optimistic this time, and really excited,” says Crowe in a recent phone call from Corner Brook. And rather than just include her on the soundtrack, Snyder wants her in the movie itself, as a performing musician.
Crowe may not dream as many artists do of a blockbuster Hollywood ending, but the singer who used to count 350 as a big audience can likely count on getting much better known.
Tidings happens December 17, 8 pm, at Fairfield United Church, 1303 Fairfield Rd. Tickets are available at Lyle’s Place, Larsen Music, and Ivy’s Bookshop.
NB The movie "Man of Steel" is slated for release on June 14, 2013. Here's a capsule preview from the film-makers:
"In the pantheon of superheroes, Superman is the most recognized and revered character of all time. Clark Kent/Kal-El (Henry Cavill) is a young twenty-something journalist who feels alienated by powers beyond his imagination. Transported years ago to Earth from Krypton, a highly advanced, distant planet, Clark struggles with the ultimate question 'Why am I here?' Shaped by the values of his adoptive parents Martha (Diane Lane) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), Clark discovers having extraordinary abilities means making difficult decisions. When the world is in dire need of stability, an even greater threat emerges. Clark must become a Man of Steel, to protect the people he loves and shine as the world's beacon of hope - Superman"