Q Theatre, March 23, 2013
They were invisible under the stage lighting, but surely there were fuses attached to Ruthie Foster. How else to account for the barrages of vocal explosions erupting from the mild-mannered Texan?
Like so many of her musical forebears Foster was born into a gospel-singing family, and her most enchanting stories took us into a world of long-ago Sundays in a sweltering Texan church. She is so steeped in that tradition that it seeps into all she does, and this testifying quality stamps a ring of truth on her voice.
Foster may be relatively diminutive, but this voice is a vast, mountainous thing of soaring peaks and cavernous depths. Blessed with power, range, warmth and the clincher, conviction, it could erupt so that her microphone became all but redundant.
Her material had range, too. She reinvented such disparate tunes as If I Had A Hammer and Ring Of Fire, the former nailed against a stark arrangement and the latter prettied up and allowed to lilt against a relentless mid-tempo groove.
These grooves came courtesy of Foster’s guitars, Scottie Miller (keyboards, mandolin), and the bass and drums of Tanya and Samantha Richardson, with the drummer laying down the lore of the rhythms in a way that brooked no argument. They made for an understated little band that kept the focus that monstrous voice, although their harmonies were too low in the mix. Sometimes, too, one felt there was another energy level to attain that was just out of reach. That may not have been the case had the splendid Miller been armed with a real piano and organ rather synthetic ones.
But then among the night’s most potent explosions was Son House’s classic People Grinnin’ In Your Face with just handclaps, tambourine and bass drum. Not all Foster’s original songs were as convincing, although her Phenomenal Woman attracted a spontaneous, mid-show standing ovation from most of her sex in the room.