Often when she is onstage, Ruthie Foster can seem like the rising of a mighty storm. A transcendent singer with uncommon power and emotion, she’s plenty capable of letting loose at any given moment.
On Sunday night, though, onstage with seven bandmates at ACL Live for a taping of "Austin City Limits," Foster pulled a neat trick: She actually felt more like the calm within the storm. Just two nights before a presidential election that has pushed this country to its edge, Foster offered songs that blended folk, blues, gospel, jazz and more with a passion that felt specifically geared toward peace.
The tone was set right from the start. Performers usually begin "Austin City Limits" tapings by launching right into their first song, but Foster took a couple of minutes to ease into things. She introduced her core band members and noted that "it’s nice to be back with my band," after months spent mostly at home during the coronavirus pandemic. And she launched into her first song not with bombastic fury but with a middle-of-the-night vision: "It’s 4 a.m. and I’m wide awake in my head, guitar suitcase crowding up the middle of my bed."
Beginning the night with her four instrumental accompanists — Scottie Miller on keyboards and mandolin, Hadden Sayers on guitar, Larry Fulcher on bass, and her fellow Austinite Brannen Temple on drums — Foster then welcomed backing singers Sheree Smith, Tamara Mack and Torri Baker to the stage for "Brand New Day." The focal track to her Grammy-nominated 2014 album "Promise of a Brand New Day," it’s a vivid statement of determination and purpose: "My heart, my mind/Is open wide/Forgiveness see me through/I’m free, are you?"
READ MORE: Our June 2020 interview with Ruthie Foster
From there, she turned toward two illuminating covers, after acknowledging how her broad-ranging musical approach took root. "I grew up with a lot of gospel in the house, and blues, and soul, and a little bit of country because it’s Texas," she said with a smile. "But my favorite was Sister Rosetta Tharpe." That was the cue for the band to kick in to Tharpe’s "Up Above My Head," which gradually built to a glorious finish with Foster singing out loud and proud. "Where did that come from?", she asked rhetorically at the end. "I’ve got to catch my breath."
A fascinating cover of the Johnny Cash staple "Ring of Fire" (written by Johnny’s wife June Carter, with Merle Kilgore) followed, nodding to those country roots she’d mentioned even as Foster and the band took the song in an entirely different direction. In her hands, it’s more of a slow-burning jazz groover than train-beat boot-scooter.
An extended piano solo from Miller introduced the next tune, "Phenomenal Woman," which has become a personal anthem of sorts for Foster since she recorded it on her 2007 album "The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster." From there, she worked through another seven songs that set traditional fare such as the Sweet Honey in the Rock staple "Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom" alongside newer songs from an album Foster plans to release in 2021.
In a post-show interview with "Austin City Limits" executive producer Terry Lickona, Foster noted that she’s specifically seeking more input from her band members on the new material. "I want them to have a voice in this band," she said. "They’re all great singer-songwriters in their own right."
An interesting new twist at this taping: There was at least a partial audience. While the four previous pandemic-area tapings this fall were conducted with no audience at all, a modest response of applause greeted Foster’s songs on this night. Cameras never panned to the crowd, but from the sound, it seemed as if a few dozen were in attendance. Clearly the "ACL" crew is still experimenting with what works best for making new episodes in these unprecedented times.
The show’s next taping will be at 8 p.m. on Nov. 10, moved from an initially announced Nov. 5 date, with Nashville duo the War and Treaty. Foster’s episode will air on PBS on Jan. 16, according to a comment from an ACL staffer in the chat that accompanied Sunday’s livestream on the show’s YouTube channel.
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