Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Ruthie Foster & The Phenomenal Women Band
October 6, 2010
photos: Jennifer Wheeler
photos: Jennifer Wheeler
No matter what style of song Ruthie Foster may sing, her unmistakable gospel roots will always shine through. Yes, the super-lunged singer never fails to bring “the spirit” to her live performances, as she takes the audience along for a rapturous ride filled with soulful hand-clapping and rocking to the rhythmic musical joy.
The Texas songbird has astonishing vocal power, while her warmth and charisma truly light up a room. Ruthie and band’s uplifting music seemed to captivate and touch every person in the audience, including the SPACE staff. It is not surprising that the Blues Foundation awarded Ruthie the Best Contemporary Blues Female Artist Award last May in Memphis. Her most recent CD, The Truth According to Ruthie Foster, was nominated for a Grammy in 2009.
Ruthie performed only three songs from Truth: her gospel-drenched original “Joy on the Other Side”, Patti Griffin’s “When It Don’t Come Easy” and “(You Keep Me) Hangin’ On.” A large portion of her set (five tunes) consisted of songs from her wonderful Runaway Soul CD, her first of four discs for the Houston indie imprint Blue Corn Music.
Ruthie paid tribute to blues pioneers of the past with her passionate, refreshing renditions of songs by Sister Rosetta Tharp, Son House, Big Maybelle and Mississippi John Hurt. She told humorous, down-home stories--one of them a real doozie--about hanging out with one of her influences, the colorful Delta blueswoman Jessie Mae Hemphill. Ruthie’s tale of Miss Jessie’s misfired pistols and homely dancing dog had everyone laughing. In fact, Ruthie likes to name her guitars and “Jessie Mae” is the moniker for her dobro (which she didn’t play at SPACE that night, unfortunately).
However, she did play Tina Taylor -- her acoustic guitar named for Albertina Walker. Sadly, the gospel great died just two days after Ruthie’s show. But the young disciple will certainly carry on the exuberant spirit that Ms. Walker brought to her live performances, as evidenced by Ms. Foster’s remarkable show that night in Evanston.
Ruthie opened with a soulful, melodious ballad, “Another Rain Song,” which she penned as a tribute to another of her influences, Sam Cooke. Her powerful, note-perfect voice rose to the rafters on Sister Rosetta’s “Up Above My Head (I Hear Music In The Air)”. It was an inspired, updated version with bass and drums providing an R&B beat. The appreciative audience responded with wild applause and cheers; from that moment on, Ruthie knew everyone was “in the spirit” and that she had us in the palm of her hand.
The singer was expertly backed by the versatile Phenomenal Women: bass player Tanya Richardson and drummer Samantha Banks. Halfway through the show, Tanya put down her bass and played the violin, beautifully weaving in and out of genres with ease, from Classical to Cajun. Beat keeper Samantha played a slammin’ solo on the spoons for “Richland Woman Blues,” which Ruthie dedicated to the late Jessie Mae Hemphill. Ruthie also called on the considerable talents of blues harp blower Trina Hamlin, who periodically jumped on stage to help out on several songs, much to the audience’s delight. “We got the women power this evening!” the bandleader proudly declared and rightly so.
It should be noted that the rhythm section’s “phenomenal” tag is only a half-brag. It is mostly a reference to a poem by Dr. Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman”, which was set to music and sung by Ruthie Foster as the title track to her 2006 CD.
Big Maybelle’s, “Ocean of Tears” was the perfect dramatic vehicle for Ruthie’s majestic pipes as she held onto notes for dear life, pleading “Maaamaa, save..your... drowwwning child”. The song was a real show stopper and you had to wonder how she could sing like that without collapsing to the floor in exhaustion. But there was no slowing down the tireless Ms. Foster; she was barely half-way through her 90-plus- minute show, with more breath-taking singing to follow.
The band shifted into funky reggae mode, with a nod to Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” on Ruthie’s self-penned “Real Love” which again showcased her ceaseless lung power and the rhythm section’s booty shakin’ prowess. Anyone who wasn’t completely floored by now surely had a hole in their soul.
The final number was the traditional spiritual “Death Came a-Knockin’ (Travelin’ Shoes), a morbid song about the grim reaper, which was turned into a joyous, lengthy jam with shouts of “Hallelujah!”. Ruthie wailed the hosannas and fired off the rhythms on guitar, Tanya played a creative bass solo and Samantha pounded her drums until they sped up like a train roaring down the track. Ruthie took a seat in the audience for a couple minutes to enjoy the Phenomenal Women at work. She returned to bring Travelin’ Shoes home, take a bow and exit.
The enthused crowd cheered and stomped for more, and the ladies obliged. For the encore, the trio sang Son House’s “People Grinnin’ In Your Face” which was given a Blind Boys of Alabama, three-part harmony treatment, performed acappella with only a bass drum thumping out the beat and their hands clapping.
It was a rare treat to see Ruthie Foster headline a show in an intimate venue with her own band. In the past when Ruthie has come to town, she was part of package tours and served as the solo acoustic opening act. I’ve seen her on the bill with Bo Diddley and Alvin Youngblood Hart; and also with Robben Ford and Jorma Kaukonen.
At SPACE, the talented songstress had the luxury of time to relax, unwind, connect with the audience, tell stories and just be Ruthie. And that, in itself, is phenomenal.