By Mike O’Cull
Three-time Grammy nominee and nine-time Blues Music Award winner Ruthie Foster shows us all again why we love her on her new record Live At The Paramount. The album came out May 15th, 2020 on Blue Corn Music and captures Foster’s glory in a brass-heavy big band context. The set was recorded live January 26th, 2019 at the 105-year-old Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas and is an extraordinary mix of Ruthie’s blues and gospel genius and fully-orchestrated big band arrangements by John Beasley (Miles Davis, Steely Dan, American Idol) and her bandleader John Miller. Foster is unquestionably one of the finest voices in roots music today and she actually rises above her own standard on Live At The Paramount with the power of the big band behind her.
Foster began her singing career in the U.S. Navy Band after a stint studying helicopter electronics. This was where she first got the chance to perform with big bands and jazz groups and developed a taste for those styles. She’s spent almost 25 years since then building her career and reputation as one of the most formidable blues, soul, and gospel vocalists and songwriters in the world. Little did her many fans know that she still had the desire to rock some big band music again and push herself out of her comfort zone. Ruthie knew it was time to put on a sparkly gown and take her people back to the days of Ella, Basie, Sinatra, and Quincy Jones and let them see a side of her talent they didn’t know about. So, she gathered up a guitarist, keyboardist, bassist and drummer, ten horn players, three backing vocalists and one conductor and did exactly that as only she could.
After an introduction by her young daughter, Ruthie Foster gets the show going with the vocal showcase “Brand New Day.” The song starts as a ring-shout and swells into full gospel blues before bursting into a New Orleans strut. It’s an attention-grabbing way to open the show and immediately puts Foster’s expressive, nuanced voice at center stage. She follows it with the easy soul groove of “Might Not Be Right,” which she co-wrote with William Bell. “It might not be right with the world but it’s alright with this girl,” she sings, displaying her natural affinity for this type of soul music. As always, Ruthie is fully in the moment when she performs and will pull you so far into that moment with her that it feels hypnotic.
One of the most sublime moments on Live At The Paramount is Foster’s complete reworking of the Johnny Cash hit “Ring Of Fire.” She turns the legendary country/mariachi song into a smooth R&B ballad that has more in common with Roberta Flack and Sade than with Johnny and June and it’s magnificent. It’s the kind of cover that sneaks up on you because it’s so different from the original version. Once you recognize where Ruthie is going, she’s got you and there’s no escape.
“Death Came A-Knockin’ (Travelin’ Shoes)” is an audience favorite based on an old Gullah Geechie spiritual and Foster uses it to raise the roof with otherworldly funk vibes. She then shifts to the more lighthearted soul of “Singing The Blues” to balance out the intensity of the previous song and make everything whole again. The sweet gospel of “Woke Up This Morning” further celebrates what truly matters in life and Foster’s faith is strong enough to touch the hardest heart. By the time she gets to the big band classics “Fly Me To The Moon” and “Mack The Knife,” you’re completely gone, wrapped up in her magic, and ready to do it all over again. Ruthie Foster is a 100% no-foolin’ force of nature with vision, talent, and soul to spare. Get close with this record and let her put you back together.
Watch “Brand New Day”
Order link for Live At The Paramount by Ruthie Foster
Ruthie Foster Online