I first heard Ruthie Foster’s name spoken by Carolyn Wonderland at a show I reported on here in September. [Show Review: Carolyn Wonderland and Shinyribs Bring the Party to DC’s City Winery and Keep It Weird] I checked out her latest record, and I made a note that she was someone I might like to see. Foster has a reputation as a fantastic live act, and she certainly lived up to it Saturday evening at northeast DC’s City Winery. She presented a finely curated mix of blues, R&B, folk, and Americana-accented country that included both her own original songs and covers of some of my favorite artists. Her deliberate pace and careful presentation made for a lovely show with many heartfelt moments and memories.
Foster opened her show with the self-penned “Brand New Day,” from her 2014 album, The Promise of a Brand New Day. She followed with “Singing the Blues,” another original and the lead track from the same album. For her third song, Foster played Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head.”
After her third song, Ruthie took a moment to talk about where she comes from. A Texas native, Foster was born in the small town of Gause, which she described as “population 500. Blink and you will miss it.” Raised in the church, she sang in choir, and learned to play guitar from a preacher neighbor. He taught her to play rhythm, she said, because “he wanted to solo.” Foster sang about her feelings for her hometown in “Small Town Blues.”
Foster’s fourth song may have been written by Mississippi John Hurt, but the moment belonged to Jessie Mae Hemphill, one of the first successful female blues musicians. Ruthie talked about going to Senatobia, Mississippi to meet Jessie Mae. On the way to meet Jessie Mae, Ruthie stopped to call, and politely asked if she needed anything at the store. Jessie Mae replied that she did several things from store, including cleaning supplies. When she reached Jessie Mae’s house, Ruthie told the audience, Jessie Mae had her clean it. Ruthie said she was happy to do this to thank Jessie Mae for the trail she blazed.
Jessie Mae had a stroke in 1993, and couldn’t play guitar when Foster met here. She had also stopped singing the blues, and sang only gospel, but she welcomed Ruthie singing the blues for her. She even grabbed a tambourine with her good hand and played along. Ruthie shared the song she played for Jessie Mae, “Richland Woman Blues.”
The next song Foster played was “When It Don’t Come Easy,” written by Patty Griffin. “I love singer-songwriters,” Ruthie said, and she proceeded to play “Fruits of My Labor” by the great singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. After the Williams song, Foster changed gears, and she played a song my famous by Mavis Staples and the Staples Singers, “The Ghetto.”
Foster emphasized how much she loved her country music. Her next was the Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire,” played with a soulful, R&B arrangement. While “Ring of Fire” may be a Johnny Cash classic, it’s appropriately sung by a woman, as it was actually written by June Carter Cash. Ruthie also professed her love of Heehaw and her sadness at the passing of its host, Roy Clark. For a few bars, Ruthie lovingly imitated Clark’s distinctive guitar picking, as well as the way he’d roll his eyes back when he played.
Ruthie put her guitar down, and the evening took on a spiritual tone. As the audience clapped and her bassist clicked his fingers, she began singing a capella “A Good Friend Is Hard To Find.”
Picking her guitar back up, Foster soloed on “Phenomenal Woman,” an adaptation of Maya Angelou’s famous poem, the first verse of which goes:
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Her bassist came in midway through the song.
Foster followed “Phenomenal Woman” with “Stone Love,” then “It Might Not Be Right for the World, But It’s All Right for this Girl,” which she co-wrote with William Bell. She finished her set with the old Gullah song “Travelin’ Shoes,” which celebrates death as a passing on to another world.
Ruthie and the band briefly left the stage, returning for their encore amidst a thunderous round of applause. They played Al Green’s “I’ll Be There,” and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t get the name of the second song in the encore. I was too entranced by the drum solo. Foster’s drummer had family in the audience, and Ruthie let him show off, in what was a mesmerizing display of skill.
This concert featured an absolutely delightful mix of music, sung and played with the greatest skill. Ruthie Foster is one to catch, and I certainly will at my next opportunity. Check into her tour dates and music, here: http://www.ruthiefoster.com/