It’s not often that fans of the unexpected in contemporary song-writing get what they wish for, but that’s exactly what was served up last Saturday afternoon right in the middle of Dundee. Upstairs at Nilupul, Lizabett Russo enraptured a small audience in an intimate setting with a remarkably original set that drew from Eastern European folk and, appropriately enough, café jazz.
As if to underscore the “differentness” of the event 1320Radio decided to splash out on the services of juggler extraordinaire Luke Davies who entertained passers by outside the venue. Audible gasps of amazement could also be heard inside, when he prefaced the music with some incredible moves that he had no right to pull off in such a confined space. Bravo dude!
The sun also chose to shine brightly on the first of 1320Radio’s promoted performances which took place, as described, upstairs at the Nilupul centre café in the heart of Dundee. It’s a particularly welcoming environment, and it offered Russo the chance to do what she does best, and that is to connect with listeners on a very personal, almost on-to-one basis.
Russo is often billed as a highly idiosyncratic performer, and the first surprise came with her choice of opening song. Her version of Skye Boat Song lilted and tilted and swept and soared and, I have to admit it, she astonished even me. She also managed to breathe fresh air into the sails of a much-loved song that’s been devalued down the years by too many overly sentimental readings.
There is an innate and admirable disregard for risk in Lizabett Russo’s performances, which contain an extensive range of vocal devices that set her quite apart from many a winsome singer-songwriter lass. Any description of “the voice as an instrument” is likely to make most seasoned listeners wince, but Russo is quite unafraid to apply a whisper and a squeal at the most startling junctures.
Songs like River Bridge and Running With Wolves are full of intriguing melodic ideas that are reassuringly familiar, yet they too are informed by the singer’s eastern-European origins in the Romanian province of Transylvannia. There is, less surprisingly, the inclusion of the traditional Bucovina (cantre despre Bucovina), although I suspect she has consciously decided upon a less over-wrought interpretation than the title suggests.
Innes Cardo is the gifted guitarist who accompanies Russo on her travels and they moved easily between solo and duo settings for her songs. Cardno is especially bright and adroit on their inventive interpretation of Brubeck’s Take 5, and an uproariously infectious Triplettes of Belleville. He also offered up a couple of guitar instrumentals including an energetic Em Blues, and warmed to the nautical theme on his reflective Dried-Up Harbour.
Russo is often at her immersive best when she is absorbed in the emotional undertow of an elliptical melody. Her own heartfelt song, Lost, perhaps epitomizes the core of her song-writing skills combining complex of feeling with simply expressed sentiments. She had won the Nilupul over much earlier, but now the audience’s attention was undivided as a soft wail of disenchantment filled the room.
In many respects the closing number, Love Me No Matter What, offered yet more evidence of a happily unpredictable performer. It’s a tremendously hooky pop song with a sunny outlook and a good-natured disposition. If we set aside her willingness to explore dark corners, then that would be a pretty good description of Russo herself.
Lizabett Russo and her songs come from somewhere else on planet music; a place that we perhaps don’t visit as often as we should. It’s just as well she’s prepared to travel, otherwise our attentive and supportive audience might have missed out.
Michael S. Clark
Upstairs at Nilupul, with Lizabett Russo and Innes Cardno, was a joint promotion by The Nilupul Foundation and 1320Radio. Follow the links (below) for more information about Nilupul, the artists who took part, and those who supported us.
Special thanks to Rainbow Music Dundee and Cameron Clark