Small Wonder: The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster, Hopkins Center for the Arts, Hopkins, MN, 1/29/13

Ruthie Foster and band

Ruthie Foster and band

(Ed. note:  Struggling mightily agaiinst writer’s block, and well past deadline, Harry Gebippe offers these long overdue observations about the recent Twin Cities’ appearance of the diminutive but dynamic Ruthie Foster.)

The roots of Ruthie Foster’s musical genealogy lead back to Sister Rosetta Tharpe (“The Godmother of Rock ‘N Roll”), Mahalia Jackson (“The Queen of Gospel”), and Aretha Franklin (“Lady Soul”), with branches stretching out into country, blues, and even pop, Ruthie’s music pays homage to the past, celebrates the present, and never strays too far away from the church, for it is there that she first found her voice, as a teenage soloist in her local Texas choir.

Immediately upon taking the stage at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, Ruthie introduced her band (Samantha Banks on  drums, Tanya Richardson on the 5-string bass, and Twin Cities native Scottie Miller on the B-3, electric piano and mandolin) – a classy gesture that for many headliners is an end of the show afterthought.  Ruthie warmed up with the Patty Griffin-penned “When It Don’t Come Easy,” a power ballad that did not tax her considerable vocal prowess.  Despite having just returned from Europe the day before, she and the band showed no signs of jet lag; instead, all were in high spirits, engaging with each other and the audience immediately.

Next up was Lucinda Williams’ “Fruits Of My Labor,” an early set show-stopper, showcasing Ruthie’s superb phrasing; sustaining key passages of the song, then snapping off the end of the lyric.  While Ms. Williams deserves much credit for writing this smoldering ballad, Ruthie Foster OWNS this song, much as Mary Chapin Carpenter owns another Lucinda-penned tune, “Passionate Kisses.”

Noting that “I love to record where I like to eat!” Ruthie introduced two songs off her newest album, the Grammy-nominated “Let It Burn,” recorded in New Orleans.  “This Time” is another carefully chosen cover, written by David Hidalgo and Louie Perez (Los Lobos), while  “Aim For The Heart” is Ruthie’s own composition. Of the latter, she remarked, “I had written the song with Bonnie Raitt in mind, sent it to her people, and they promptly sent it back!”  Ms. Raitt might want to reconsider that decision, as “Aim” is a mid-tempo rocker, well-suited to Bonnie’s blues/rock style.

Ruthie is careful to pay her respects to the strong African-American women artists whose legacy she embraces, by celebrating their music.  Maybelle Smith’s “Ocean of Tears” was delivered with a slinky “double shuffle” blues beat, reminiscent of Howlin’ Wolf, while Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s joyous “Up Above My Head” took us right back to the church.  Get out your fans, sisters, and let’s have us a good givin’!

The centerpiece of Ruthie’s shows is her signature rendition of “Phenomenal Woman.”  Featuring the words of the writer Maya Angelou set to music, “Phenomenal Woman” is a proud feminist statement, proclaiming the joys of womanhood.  Ruthie set aside her guitar for this one, bending her knees like a weight lifter, throwing her head back and unleashing the full power of her formidable voice.  Microphone?  We don’t need no stinkin’ microphone!   The folks in downtown Minneapolis could probably hear her, let alone those of us in the concert hall.  It was an amazing performance, earning her a well-deserved mid-set standing ovation.

"Phenomenal Woman"

“Phenomenal Woman”

From the gospel to the blues for the next two songs: Son House’s “People Grinnin’ In Your Face,” with hand-clapping accompaniment from the audience, followed by “some front porch pickin'” on a Mississippi John Hurt country blues number, that featured Scottie Miller on mandolin and Samantha Banks doing yeoman work on the spoons.  Can’t recall the last time I witnessed a solo on the spoons, but Ms. Banks’ is truly a virtuoso on that primitive percussion instrument.

Ruthie ended her eclectic set with a wide range of songs, from the gentle country blues of “Hole In My Pocket,” with its singalong chorus, to a straightforward rocking version of David Crosby’s “Long Time Gone,” to her cover of Adele’s power pop ballad, “Set Fire To The Rain.”  But far and away the most interesting song in this last segment of her set was her take on “Ring Of Fire.” The song was totally deconstructed into a slow blues number, completely unrecognizable from the original, and with Ruthie’s most understated vocal of the night.  It was a bold, fascinating move by Ms. Foster, appropriating one of Johnny Cash’s signature songs and remaking it into her own, much as The Man In Black himself did near the end of his life, when he released his American Recordings series of sparely-arranged rock ‘n roll songs.   In that sense, it was the perfect homage to one of the most independent spirits in contemporary music history.


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