Ruthie Foster’s big voice fills up the Paramount at record-release show

Ruthie Foster. Contributed/John Carrico

By John T. Davis
Special to the American-Statesman

 

Say this about Ruthie Foster: Once she sings a song, that rascal stays sung.

A case in point is “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” which Foster performed midway through her headlining concert at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday to celebrate the release of her new album, “Joy Comes Back.”

Originally a lighter-than-air Motown confection that was a hit for the Four Tops, the song also got a wonderfully rough-hewn treatment from The Band some years back. But Foster, with the help of her own band and several special guests, opened the song up and took it to church. After she got done, it was hard to ever envision the tune otherwise.

Foster is diminutive in stature, but she has a gospel-soaked voice as big as Godzilla. And whether she turns it loose on airy pop (“Open Sky”), gutbucket blues (Mississippi John Hurt’s “Richland Woman Blues”), anthems of affirmation (“Working Woman” and “Phenomenal Woman”) or even reggae (an encore rendition of her own “Real Love”), she has a transformative effect on her material.

That even goes for her South-Austin-back-porch-jam-session take on Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” It’s tempting to regard the unusual interpretation as a sly goof, and maybe on one level it is. But damned if Foster didn’t sell that song like it was the greatest thing since night baseball.

On this evening she had a bigger musical palette to work with than usual. In addition to her usual ensemble, she added the talents of guitarists David Grissom and Carolyn Wonderland and fiddler Warren Hood, as well as a harp player, a keyboardist and a pair of backup vocalists. The array of musicians let her put some extra muscle into the blues rocker “Working Woman” and Son House’s gospel testament “People Grinnin’ in Your Face.”

But the night was all about Foster, and she made the most of it. During her encore number, she took one note and held it. She shook it, worked it, wrung every drop of emotion out of it and then held it some more. It brought to mind those Olympic ice skaters who pirouette for what seems like forever in a timeless dimension.

Since last I saw the Peterson Brothers perform (admittedly its been awhile), the Austin-based group, who opened the show for Foster, have progressed leaps and bounds in terms of chops, stage presence and all-around showmanship. It’s a long way from holding down a residency at the Continental Club to commanding the attention of a full house at the Paramount, but brothers Alex (bass and vocals) and Glenn Jr. (guitar and vocals), along with drummer Chris Mead, did so without breaking a sweat. From an opening medley which improbably married up Tampa Red’s “Don’t You Lie To Me” with “The Theme From Shaft” to a turbo-charged workout on “Got My Mojo Workin’,” which saw the guys parading up the aisles and through the theater lobby, their too-short set was bristling with fun and infectious energy.

 

Update: Warren Hood’s name has been corrected from an earlier version of this review.

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