Those who have followed Ruthie Foster‘s eclectic musical history know that she can burn down any stage with her combustible blend of soul, blues, rock, folk and gospel. And when Grammy Award-winning producer John Chelew suggested she record an album in New Orleans – with support handpicked from the Crescent City’s overflowing pool of talent – it was an opportunity for Ruthie to infuse fresh spices into her already rich sonic gumbo. The result isLet It Burn – slated for January 31, 2012 release on Blue Corn Music – a recording that smolders, sizzles and ignites with an intensity born from her vibrant voice and indelible presence.
Ruthie’s astonishing voice has taken her on an amazing ride. She came from humble church choir beginnings in rural Texas, followed by a tour of duty with the U.S. Navy Band, and ended up in New York City with a major-label development deal that went sour. After she moved back to Texas to care for her ailing mother, Foster took a break from singing professionally for a couple of years. When she resumed her music career in Austin, she became a regular nominee at the Austin Music Awards, winning Best Folk Artist in 2004-05 and Best Female Vocalist in 2007-08. Broadening her sound by blending blues and soul aspects into her folk roots, Ruthie added a Grammy nomination to her list of achievements (Best Contemporary Blues Album for her last studio release, 2009’s The Truth According to Ruthie Foster). And, in a nod to her astounding range, she then won seemingly contradictory Blues Music Association awards for both Best Traditional and Best Contemporary Female Blues Artist in back-to-back years.
In addition to leading her own band and touring it around the world, Foster has also collaborated on stage and recordings with a diverse list of artists including Warren Haynes, Big Head Todd, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Bibb and Paul Thorn. She’s a regular favorite at an equally diverse list of festivals such as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Monterey Blues Festival, Merlefest and the Kate Wolf Festival.
The ingredients for Let It Burn, recorded at New Orleans’ Piety Street Studios, start with some of that city’s most respected players: The Funky Meters‘ rhythm section of bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Russell Batiste, guitarist Dave Easley, and renowned saxophonist James Rivers collectively infuse the tracks with the groove-based, in-the-pocket vibe that comes naturally to New Orleans-bred musicians. The addition of Hammond B3 wizard Ike Stubblefield, who has toured and recorded with everyone from Curtis Mayfield to Eric Clapton, gives the album a jazzy organ-combo feel. Finally, legendary gospel singers the Blind Boys of Alabama and soul icon William Bell add extra depth to the project’s surprisingly eclectic collection of cover songs and fresh originals.
Besides the New Orleans location, there was another significant “first” associated with these sessions. “This is the only album I’ve done where I don’t play an instrument, which is really different. It gave me a lot more freedom vocally. Without a guitar, all I did was concentrate on singing,” Foster explains. “Sometimes I tried to channel Mavis Staples vocally, but I also wanted to bring a kind of Cassandra Wilson/Sade sultriness to some of the songs.”
The results are powerful, defining performances of Adele‘s anthemic “Set Fire to the Rain,”John Martyn‘s poignant and sensual “Don’t Want to Know,” and Johnny Cash‘s “Ring of Fire,” all of which take on new vibrancy with distinctive musical arrangements and Ruthie’s commanding presence. The achingly beautiful, atmospheric ballad version of “Ring of Fire” is at the heart of this album, and potently showcases Foster as one of the finest interpretive singers of our time. “When it comes to songs, often older ones, I love it when they find me and that’s what happened with ‘Ring of Fire.’ I put myself inside of that song, which speaks to the passion of a new relationship,” she says.
Ruthie mines other tunes from a variety of sources such as the Black Keys (“Everlasting Light,” given a sparkling and righteous treatment), Pete Seeger (a dynamic, ominous swamp/jazz reimagining of “If I Had a Hammer”) and Los Lobos (the rambling, haunting “This Time”).
The church is never far from anything Foster touches as her spiritual original “Lord Remember Me” with the Blind Boys, featuring a sanctified slide solo from guitarist Easley, makes clear. The album’s opening and closing tracks also spotlight the Blind Boys and bookend the project with a devotional approach. “I haven’t lost my gospel in the way I approach a song,” explains Ruthie.
Another new Foster song is “Aim for the Heart” (a co-write with Jon & Sally Tiven), which works Porter’s funky bass, Stubblefield’s expressive organ and Easley’s snake-like guitar into a groove which supports the deeply personal motto (“Aim for the heart/And you’ll never go wrong”) that Foster has exhibited in both her life and music.
Rounding out this smoldering collection of tunes are covers of The Band‘s melancholic “It Makes No Difference,” David Crosby‘s politically charged “Long Time Gone” and William Bell’s classic “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (with Bell dueting on a slow, jazz/blues version of the standard, augmented by a stunning Rivers solo), all of which further display Ruthie’s uncanny knack for finding the simmering essence of any song.
On Let It Burn, Ruthie Foster takes the listener on her most personal journey yet, sounding like she is pouring her heart out late at night, and her deeply soulful vocals create a spiritual soundscape to support her testimony. This is the album her fans have been waiting for – and that the rest of the world will listen to in wonder.
AFTER THE GIG
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