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Review: Ruthie Foster Brings Her Commanding Presence To an Eclectically Southern-Rooted Set at Zankel Hall

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, February 6, 2018

What can I tell you about Ruthie Foster that won’t make me sound like a crazy-man? That she commands a stage as completely as Judy Garland or Janis Joplin did, but with unfailing grace and good cheer? That she weights and colors syllables along a sustained monotone as exquisitely as Billie Holliday did, but does it wholeheartedly, without Holliday’s slow acid-drip? That she goes at a line like “When they build a new Jerusalem” with vocal power and spiritual force that Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin—hell, even Birgit Nillsson—would have admired?

She did only ten numbers, but the variety was astonishing, from her own paradoxically chipper “Singing the Blues” and “Small Town Blues” (the latter a snappy two-step, just to ice the cake), to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s hypnotic “Up Above My Head;” Homer Banks, Bonnie Bramlett, and Bettye Crutcher’s devastating “Ghetto;” and Foster’s magnificent anthem-like setting of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman,” with its thrilling, constantly surprising harmonic dissolves. Other high-points—there were no lows—included an easy, lush take on “Ring of Fire” and a version of Son House’s cheerfully defiant “People Grinnin’ in Your Face” that was all the more delightful for being largely unaccompanied (what Foster’s Papaw called “ah capelley”).

Foster’s colleagues—and this was a beautifully distributed group-venture—were beyond praise. Keyboardist Scottie Miller was especially wonderful in “Up Above My Head” and in his introduction to “Phenomenal Woman,” and even better tearing up the mandolin in “Small Town Blues.” Samantha Banks, on percussion, had all the power she needed, but also commanded an amazing subtlety of tone and depth of color. Larry Fulcher, on bass guitar, kept a beautiful, rich pulse going all the way through. The three of them together were absolute perfection on vocals—“Ghetto” was one of the most beautiful pieces of ensemble-singing I’ve ever heard, and I live in a town blessed by Donald Palumbo’s Metropolitan Opera Chorus.

OK, so you think I’m a crazy-man, but do yourself a favor and sample this same cast of characters’ extended set at the 2014 Bogalusa Blues & Heritage Festival, and then come tell me I’m wrong. Bogalusa’s warmer than New York City, and everybody’s luggage got lost, and it was a looser, longer show than the one at Zankel, but it gives you the idea. For my money, these folks can’t come back soon enough.

The North Mississippi Allstars (l. to r,.) Sharde Thomas (vocals), Luther Dickinson (guitar/vocals), Cody Dickinson (drums), and Rob Wilbourne (guitar) at Zankel Hall; photo: Jack Vartoogian.

After intermission, the North Mississippi Allstars took the stage, and bless their hearts, the only words I could make out were “Mississippi” (early and often) and something that might have been “Casey Jones”—and, honey, before you get in my face about this, I hasten to assure you that Southern is my native tongue, and I still speak it fluently and understand it perfectly. Luther Dickinson, the lead singer and guitarist, did a lot of head-waving and Chuck Berry-style leg-lifting and bopping around the stage, but it didn’t seem to arise naturally out of the music. He interrupted many of his best moments to adjust his amps, and even took a whole chorus on a tuna-can banjo—a fascinating instrument, and not one you hear every day at Zankel Hall—with his back turned to the audience. Cody Dickinson, on vocals and an array of instruments, was more focused, and he had one terrific turn at the hall’s Steinway grand, but again, you had no idea what he was singing unless you came already knowing what he was going to sing.

The music seemed remarkably uniform—Queen’s signature boom-boom-BOOM, boom-boom-BOOM, underlay a lot of it, with little real variation—and numbers tended to peter out and cease, rather than building to any kind of organic conclusion. The one exception was the final number, “Back Back Train,” which mimes a steam-engine laboriously slowing down and coming to a halt, but even that was just an emphatic form of petering out and ceasing—impressive in its way, but an odd kind of energy to bring to the evening’s grand finale.

Admittedly, mine will probably turn out to be a minority report.  There were lots of empty seats for Foster’s set, but for the Allstars the place was packed to the rafters with people who came to cheer—a man in my row got so excited after the very first note that he nearly broke his chair—so maybe my ears are screwed on wrong.

Or maybe it just wasn’t the right venue. Zankel is a fine hall for unplugged music and even for unamplified speech—as the Dickinsons inadvertently demonstrated a couple of times when they wandered out of microphone-range and suddenly sounded great—but there’s something, either in the acoustic or in the hall’s electronic setup, that wants to obliterate amplified words, whether spoken or sung. This was occasionally a problem for Foster, as it was earlier in the season for Catherine Russell, but amped up to the max for the Allstars, it overwhelmed sense and meaning, and was sometimes physically painful, to boot. Foster and Russell, laser-focused communicators with brilliant diction, somehow finessed it, but listening to the Allstars under these conditions was like being a plus-one at somebody else’s family reunion, where everyone shouts at you in a language you don’t understand, and there isn’t any food.

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Ruthie Foster and the North Mississippi Allstars in concert at Zankel Hall on Saturday, February 3, 2018. Ruthie Foster, guitar, vocals; Scottie Miller, keyboards, mandolin, vocals; Samantha Banks, drums, vocals; Larry Fulcher, bass guitar, vocals; The North Mississippi Allstars: Luther Dickinson, guitars, banjo, percussion, vocals; Cody Dickinson, percussion, guitar, piano, vocals; Rob Wilbourne, guitar; Shardé Thomas, fife, vocals.

 

Cover: Ruthie Foster at Zankel Hall; photo: Jack Vartoogian.


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