Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
RUTHIE FOSTER & ERIC BIBB
January 21, 2011
McAninch Arts Center/College of DuPage
Glen Ellyn, IL
By Linda Cain
photos: Jennifer Wheeler
photos: Jennifer Wheeler
Ruthie Foster and Eric Bibb are a perfect pair. Although they may hail from opposite parts of the country -- she’s from Texas, he’s from New York – their music and ideology are right in synch. Foster and Bibb share a kindred spirit in performing American roots music, as well as an exuberant, positive outlook that rubs off on concert goers and makes them feel as happy and shiny as a new silver dollar.
The show’s theme was “Thanks For The Joy,” the title of a Bibb song. Both performers served up that blissful feeling by the truckload. They even made songs about death seem cheery.
Eric Bibb came onstage solo with an acoustic guitar and opened the show with a light-hearted song inspired by his mama’s advice on overspending. “Champagne Habits (On a Beer Salary)” got the crowd chuckling and in a good mood from the start.
Bibb’s vocals -- smooth and rich as molasses with just enough grit -- along with his easy-going manner, brought to mind another similar artist, namely Keb Mo’. On this evening Bibb played guitar in a nimble, delicate, finger-picking style favored by folk artists, as opposed to the mighty string-bending of many blues artists.
Bibb called out for his accompanist, Seattle harp player Grant Dermody, who missed his cue; nevertheless Bibb carried on solo with his unusually upbeat version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Going Down Slow,” a song about preparing to meet your maker. When Dermody finally came on stage to assist, he more than made up for his late entrance with dazzling, creative harmonica work.
It was all teamwork after that, as the duo created spellbinding, haunting melodies (“Flood Water”) along with upbeat, hand-clappin’ rhythms (“New Home”).
Bibb’s infectious smile and childlike enthusiasm enhanced the positivity of his performance throughout the evening. He also shared his love and reverence for legendary blues players, especially Booker “Bukka” White and his younger cousin B.B. King.
A couple years ago, Bibb had chance encounter with the “holy relic” of the blues, Bukka White’s 1930s vintage Resophonic National steel-body guitar. The experience inspired Bibb to create a tribute to the Delta legend, his latest CD Booker’s Guitar, which is nominated for several Blues Music Awards.
Although Bibb didn’t have time to go into detail regarding the story behind his union with White’s guitar, you can read about it in Chicago Blues Guide’s interview with him: CLICK HERE.
The next four songs the duo performed were from Booker’s Guitar. “Walkin’ Blues Again” featured Dermody playing a very melodic harp as he blew gentle notes with subtle technique and style. Bibb plucked bass notes on his strings to create the feeling of a walking rhythm to accompany the song’s subject matter.
“New Home,” a hopeful tale of leaving the old country shack behind and fulfilling one’s dreams, enticed the crowd to clap along to the foot stompin’ beat; the tune earned enthusiastic applause at its finish.
“Flood Water” recalled the devastating Louisiana flood of 1927. “This is the same flood that Randy Newman wrote about in his song, ‘Louisiana’,” Bibb noted. This sad, but beautiful song’s lyrics were sung from a survivor’s point of view and served as a chilling reminder of the more recent Hurricane Katrina disaster.
As Bibb tuned his guitar, he introduced “Tell Riley” as “a song about my heroes, Booker White and B.B. King.” The tale is sung from older cousin Booker’s perspective, who gave Riley B. King his first guitar: “Tell Riley he’s welcome to stay/Mark my words, he’s gonna be big someday.” The lively tune drew the attentive crowd into the story’s happy refrain and received huge applause.
Another late blues great, John Cephas, was paid tribute by the duo’s version of his song “Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad,” a tune well-known to Deadheads.
A couple songs about the ladies included Bibb’s gentle, romantic ballad “Connected” and the traditional tale of the lovelorn, “Come Back Baby,” made famous by folk hero Dave Von Ronk.
Bibb and Dermody closed out their hour-long set with the gospel-inspired “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down,” which they dedicated to Ruthie Foster. The joyous tune got everybody on their feet for a standing ovation.
The last time Ruthie Foster performed at the College of DuPage, she was the solo acoustic opening act for Robben Ford and Jorma Kaukonen. Two years later, Foster returned as the headliner with a full band. Having the luxury of three multi-instrumentalists to back her, Foster was able to add another dimension to her music. The foursome seamlessly fused the genres of country, gospel, folk, R&B, blues and rock with their instruments: acoustic guitar, electric five-string bass, Hammond B3 and Kurzweil keyboards, mandolin, violin, drums and percussion. The main instrument, however, was Foster’s voice. In the tradition of big-voiced singers such as Etta James, Ruth Brown and Big Maybelle, this Texas songbird has astonishing vocal power, while her warmth and charisma light up a room.
No matter what style of song Ms. Foster may sing, her unmistakable gospel roots always shine through. Appropriately, she opened with Sister Rosetta Tharp’s rousing “(Up Above My Head) I Hear Music in the Air.”
Her next number was beautifully sung -- a soulful and melodious ballad, “Another Rain Song,” which she penned as a tribute to another of her influences, Sam Cooke. Keyboardist Scotty’s B-3 added a churchy feeling to the number.
Foster introduced “Fruits of My Labor” as “a song by one of my favorite writers, Lucinda Williams.” Her clear and potent voice was the perfect vehicle to convey the lyrics’ poetry and sensuality. She and the band slowly built up the ballad’s intensity and ended it with a dramatic crescendo.
Two more tunes by Foster’s favorite songwriting women followed: Patti Griffin’s ballad “When It Don’t Come Easy” and Anne Peebles’ Memphis R&B tune “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” The band’s ladies (a.k.a. the Phenomenal Women), Tanya on bass and drummer Samantha, contributed harmonies.
Foster wrote “Small Town Blues” about leaving her home in the country to explore the world outside. The band performed a “front porch” version of the upbeat tune as Scotty switched from keyboards to mandolin, giving the song a country flavor. All three band members added backup vocals to Foster’s soaring lead.
Bassist Tanya got out her fiddle for the “back porch” song, Mississippi John Hurt’s “Richland Woman Blues,” which Foster dedicated to the late blues woman Jessie Mae Hemphill. The countrified blues song featured some nice interplay between fiddle and mandolin. Samantha sat behind her drumkit and played a slammin’ solo on the spoons to hoots and hollers from the crowd.
Throughout the evening, Foster told down-home tales about growing up in the country. She told us about Big Mama (her grandma) and the fermented grape juice she’d give the grandkids to drink when they got too rambunctious. The story served to introduce Foster’s nostalgic, original song, “Home,” which she sang with heartfelt sentiment in her powerful voice.
Another of Foster’s favorite songwriters is Terry Hendricks who wrote “Hole In My Pocket,” a gospel-flavored song that got the folks singing along on the chorus: “show me ways to save my soul/ show me ways to save my soul /I’ve got a hole in my pocket where it all slips away”. Samantha on bongos, Scotty on mandolin and Tanya on fiddle added a country flavor. The songstress wailed, the trio sang heavenly harmonies and the audience joined in. Foster knows how to wrap her voice around a song and bring it to life, to infuse it with meaning and touch the listener, as she did so well on this number. Nobody in the house was feeling blue by now!
“Can we sing about love, y’all?” Foster asked. Scotty started with a gospel-style organ intro and then the band kicked into a rockin’ Bonnie Raitt-style number, “Stone Love,” that got the audience cheering as Foster really belted it out.
She followed with another rockin’ song, “Truth!” the title track of her 2009 Grammy-nominated CD, The Truth According to Ruthie Foster. “You don’t have to go far, the truth is where you are,” she sang, as Scotty’s organ moved the song along with urgency and the trio added punchy harmonies.
“Death Came a-Knockin’ (Travelin’ Shoes)” received an eerie intro as Samantha rattled shells and struck her chimes. The crowd clapped along to the old-timey gospel beat, which soon shifted gears as the keyboards turned jazzy and Scotty played his B3 and Kurzweil simultaneously. Foster laid back as her band launched into an eclectic jam, to create a contemporary, uplifting version of the old spiritual. Each band member got to solo while Samantha pushed the beat. For her solo, the drummer chugged along like speeding train. They added a quick touch of Latin jazz, as Foster rejoined the players to direct the the song back into a funky version of “Travelin’ Shoes” which ended with her powerful voice rising to the rafters. She and the band were rewarded with an instant standing ovation.
“Let’s raise the roof!” said Foster, as she called out to Bibb and Dermody to join her for the show’s theme song, “Thanks for the Joy”. The uplifting tune was given a church feel with Scotty’s organ solo. Dermody got into the spirit with his harp, as he hit impossibly high notes. Foster and Bibb took turns on the vocals, demonstrating their made-in-heaven chemistry as the crowd clapped along and then rose to its collective feet for another standing ovation.
The band left the stage, as the crowd remained standing and applauding for more. They quickly returned for the final number, Brownie McGee’s “Walk On.” Foster started the tune and called on Bibb and Dermody to join her for another joyful song about standing up to adversity. The audience soon joined in singing and clapping to the beat. As the song ended and the band stopped, Foster kept going, singing a cappella and pulling out all the stops for the big finish. “You got to keep on walkin’, until you find find find your waaayyy!” she wailed, drawing out each word. This woman knows how to work a room! And, of course, they received a third and final standing ovation.
January in Chicagoland is enough to drag one’s spirit down. Happily there are outstanding shows like this to warm our hearts and feed our souls. Thanks for the joy, Ruthie and Eric.
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