Those who have followed Ruthie Fosterâ€™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 â€” with support handpicked from the Crescent Cityâ€™s overflowing pool of talent â€” it was an opportunity for Ruthie to infuse fresh spices into her already rich sonic gumbo. The result is Let It Burn â€” slated for January 31, 2012 release on Blue Corn Music â€” a recording that smolders, sizzles and ignites with an intensity born from her vibrant voice and indelible presence.
Ruthieâ€™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, 2009â€™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. Sheâ€™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 Orleansâ€™ Piety Street Studios, start with some of that cityâ€™s most respected players: The Funky Metersâ€™ 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 projectâ€™s surprisingly eclectic collection of cover songs and fresh originals.
Besides the New Orleans location, there was another significant â€œfirstâ€ associated with these sessions. â€œThis is the only album Iâ€™ve done where I donâ€™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,â€ Foster explains. â€œSometimes 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.â€
The results are powerful, defining performances of Adeleâ€™s anthemic â€œSet Fire to the Rain,â€ John Martynâ€™s poignant and sensual â€œDonâ€™t Want to Know,â€ and Johnny Cashâ€™s â€œRing of Fire,â€ all of which take on new vibrancy with distinctive musical arrangements and Ruthieâ€™s commanding presence. The achingly beautiful, atmospheric ballad version of â€œRing of Fireâ€ is at the heart of this album, and potently showcases Foster as one of the finest interpretive singers of our time. â€œWhen it comes to songs, often older ones, I love it when they find me and thatâ€™s what happened with â€˜Ring of Fire.â€™ I put myself inside of that song, which speaks to the passion of a new relationship,â€ she says.
Ruthie mines other tunes from a variety of sources such as the Black Keys (â€œEverlasting Light,â€ given a sparkling and righteous treatment), Pete Seeger (a dynamic, ominous swamp/jazz reimagining of â€œIf I Had a Hammerâ€) and Los Lobos (the rambling, haunting â€œThis Timeâ€).
The church is never far from anything Foster touches as her spiritual original â€œLord Remember Meâ€ with the Blind Boys, featuring a sanctified slide solo from guitarist Easley, makes clear. The albumâ€™s opening and closing tracks also spotlight the Blind Boys and bookend the project with a devotional approach. â€œI havenâ€™t lost my gospel in the way I approach a song,â€ explains Ruthie.
Another new Foster song is â€œAim for the Heartâ€ (a co-write with Jon Tiven), which works Porterâ€™s funky bass, Stubblefieldâ€™s expressive organ and Easleyâ€™s snake-like guitar into a groove which supports the deeply personal motto (â€œAim for the heart/And youâ€™ll never go wrongâ€) that Foster has exhibited in both her life and music.
Rounding out this smoldering collection of tunes are covers of The Bandâ€™s melancholic â€œIt Makes No Difference,â€ David Crosbyâ€™s politically charged â€œLong Time Goneâ€ and William Bellâ€™s classic â€œYou Donâ€™t Miss Your Waterâ€ (with Bell dueting on a slow, jazz/blues version of the standard, augmented by a stunning Rivers solo), all of which further display Ruthieâ€™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 â€” and that the rest of the world will listen to in wonder.
RUTHIE FOSTER TOUR DATES
Sat., Jan. 14 Â Â Â Â Â NORFOLK, VA Â Â Attucks Theater
Sun., Jan. 15 Â Â Â CHARLESTON, WV Â Mountain Stage
Sat., Jan. 21 Â Â Â Â CROCKETT, TX Â Â Â Crockett Civic Theater
Tues., Jan. 31 Â Â Â Â LOS ANGELES, CA Â Â Â Grammy Museum
Wed., Feb. 1 Â Â Â LOS ANGELES, CA Â Â Â Grammy Museum
Thurs., Feb. 2 Â Â Â PORTLAND, OR Â Â Aladdin Theater, with Paul Thorn
Fri., Feb. 3 Â Â SPOKANE, WA Â Â The Bing Crosby Theater, with Paul Thorn
Sat., Feb. 4 Â Â SEATTLE, WA Â The Triple Door, with Paul Thorn
Mon., Feb. 6 Â Â CHICO, CA Â Â Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., with Paul Thorn
Tues., Feb. 7 Â Â ARCATA, CA Â Â Humboldt State University, with Paul Thorn
Wed., Feb. 8 Â Â Â NAPA, CA Â Â Napa Valley Opera House, with Paul Thorn
Thurs., Feb. 9 Â Â SAN FRANCISCO, CA Â Great American Music Hall, with Paul Thorn
Fri., Feb. 10 Â Â SANTA BARBARA, CA Â UC Santa Barbara, with Paul Thorn
Sat., Feb. 11 Â Â PHOENIX, AZ Â The Compound Grill, with Paul Thorn
Sun., Feb. 12 Â Â TUCSON, AZ Â Berger Performing Arts Center, with Paul Thorn
Tues., Feb. 14 Â STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, CO Â Strings Music Pavilion, with Paul Thorn
Thurs., Feb. 16 Â DURANGO, CO Â Fort Lewis College, with Paul Thorn
Fri., Feb. 17 Â Â BEAVER CREEK, CO Â Vilar Center for the Arts Â with Paul Thorn
Sat., Feb. 18 Â Â DENVER, CO Â Â Â Swallow Hill Music Presents @L2 Arts & Culture Center, with Paul Thorn
Thurs., Feb. 23 Â Â THE WOODLANDS, TX Â Â Dosey Doe CafÃ©
Fri., Feb. 24 Â Â AUSTIN, TX Â Antoneâ€™s
Fri., March 2 CARRBORO, NC Cat’s Cradle, with Paul Thorn (T)
Sat., March 3 Â Â WINSTON-SALEM, NC Ziggy’s, with Paul Thorn (T)
Sun., March 4 ROANOKE, VA Kirk Ave, with Paul Thorn (T)
Wed., March 7 ALEXANDRIA, VA Birchmere, with Paul Thorn (T)
Thurs., March 8 PHILADELPHIA, PA WCL, with Paul Thorn (T)
Fri., March 9 Â NEW YORK, NY City Winery, with Paul Thorn (T)
Sat., March 10 Â Â CHATHAM, NJ Sanctuary, with Paul Thorn (T)
Wed.-Fri., March 14-16 Â AUSTIN, TX Â SXSW
Fri., March 17 DALLAS, TX Â Â Â Kessler Theater
Sat.-Sun., March 24-25 Â Â SAVANNAH, GA Â Â Savannah Music Festival
Sat., March 31 Â SCHAUMBURG, IL Â Schaumburg Prairie Center for the Arts