Lifer: Catherine Russell's Rich Musical Path
by Jeff Tamarkin
The Boston Phoenix, February 28, 2008
As soon as you think you’ve got Catherine Russell figured out, she lobs another detail your way that throws the whole thing off. On the fiftysomething singer’s sophomore album, Sentimental Streak (World Village), she covers songs dug out from the deepest crevices of the catalogues of Alberta Hunter, Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne, Bessie Smith, and Ella Fitzgerald — jazz and blues divas whose careers were in full swing before she was born. So it makes sense when you learn that her late Panamanian-born dad, Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong’s long-time musical director and her mom, Carline Ray, is a world-class bassist who still performs regularly at 82.
But then Russell fills in the blanks. The New York native — who opens for Levon Helm at the Orpheum on March 1 and comes to Scullers March 11 — spent considerable time on the road singing and playing in David Bowie’s band. She’s worked with Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. She digs the hell out of both classic soul and country; she’s taught at Berklee; she followed the Grateful Dead around from the late ’60s till Jerry Garcia’s death (“I was hooked"), even covering one of their tunes for a tribute album.
Russell has also been a huge fan of the Band for decades, so when the opportunity presented itself to record Sentimental Streak at Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, New York, she jumped. To produce, she brought in Larry Campbell, Dylan’s former road guitarist and more recently an associate of Helm and the Dead’s Phil Lesh. The only component missing was Helm himself.
“Levon was involved mixing his Dirt Farmer album, so he didn’t play on mine," she says, referring to the erstwhile Band drummer’s recent Grammy-winning CD. “But every few days he’d come in and say, ‘Hey, how y’all doin’?’ He was really encouraging."
Like 2006’s Cat, her solo debut, Sentimental Streak is an acoustic affair designed to showcase the dynamics of Russell’s sassy, nuanced delivery. Despite the vintage of the material, the arrangements aren’t retro; filtered through Russell’s iPod of a brain, the recording sounds as contemporary as anything being turned out by Amy Winehouse or Joss Stone, with that essential element of experience — something she admires in the singers she covers — factored in.
“All of those women have fascinating stories," she says about the vocalists whose repertoires she raided. “And they seemed to have fun singing, no matter what the subject matter. Also, a lot of this music was meant for dancing, and I’m really attracted to that. I like people to get up and dance even if there’s no dance floor. The other thing is that the structures of the songs were, to me, a lot better then. You had great melodies, great lyrics, great harmonic structures. There was more storytelling, so by the end of the tune you get to know the person a little better."
Among the highlights of Sentimental Streak is “South to a Warmer Place," a Sinatra ballad so rare that even Frank-ologist Michael Feinstein, the cabaret singer and pianist with whom Russell has also worked, wasn’t familiar with it. Russell also interprets tunes by Hoagy Carmichael and Willie Dixon and one penned by her father, “I’ve Got That Thing." She even tosses in an original, “Luci."
But she doesn’t foresee cutting a full album of her own compositions any time soon. “If I were to do that, it would be a whole different genre — more blues and soul oriented. I don’t really dictate the genre when I write. I’m just happy when the muse comes to me and I can finish a song. But maybe if we could adapt some of my tunes to fit an early string-band style, that might work."