Home Live Review Live Review: Ruthie Foster @ The Hamilton Live — 7/30/23

Live Review: Ruthie Foster @ The Hamilton Live — 7/30/23

Live Review: Ruthie Foster @ The Hamilton Live — 7/30/23
Ruthie Foster (Photo courtesy Missing Piece Group)

“This is the acoustic show,” Austin-based blues artist Ruthie Foster recently told the audience at The Hamilton Live when she took the stage. Playing solo acoustic can be a challenge: with just one instrument and one’s voice, there’s no hiding any shortcomings.

But Ruthie Foster is a truly impressive vocalist, and she’s more than capable of holding an audience at rapt attention in this setting.

When artists play a solo acoustic set, they usually approach it differently from a full band show. These performances are more intimate, and the artists often share stories behind the songs in a depth they might not with a full band on stage. With a full band, planning the set is necessary: there’s too much coordination required to decide what to play on the fly. I don’t know if Foster approached her set at The Hamilton Live on July 30 with a detailed plan, but she played a great mix of covers and originals and told some incredible stories about her career.

As she related during the set, Ruthie grew up in Gause, a small town in central Texas. She was very close to her grandparents. “My mother was around,” she said, “but she was working.” The first song of the evening, “Brand New Day,” was inspired by her grandmother, who used to tell her that every day is a brand new day. This statement is both obviously true and surprisingly deep. Of course, every day is a new day, but what that means is we have an opportunity to make a new start and to let go of the past every day.

Watch Ruthie Foster perform “Brand New Day” live at The Paramount on YouTube:

Foster began playing music while attending community college in Waco, where she was studying music and audio engineering. She enlisted in the Navy, where she managed to continue working on her music, joining a band called Pride that played pop and funk hits at recruitment drives. If you know how to use your time in the service, you can get a lot out of it. My uncle was a radar tech in the Air Force stationed in Iceland for four years during the Vietnam War, during which time he (despite being an atheist) read the entire Bible and built his own electronics, radios and TVs, which later helped him in his career as an engineer.

Foster has been nominated for and won several awards. She’s been nominated for three Grammys: Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2010 for The Truth According to Ruthie Foster and Best Blues Album in 2012 for Let It Burn and in 2014 for Promise of a Brand New Day. She’s been nominated for Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year at the Blues Music Awards five times, winning three. More recently, she won that organization’s award for Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year. She’s been nominated for Living Blues Female Artist of the Year three times, winning once, and she was also nominated for Best Live Performer.

Music cruises have become a big thing within the last decade. I like to joke that I’m interested in the Outlaw Country Cruise, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea for me, Steve Earle, and Mojo Nixon to be in the same place. Ruthie has been a regular performer on the Blues Cruise, where’s she gotten to see and meet some of her heroes, like Bobby “Blue” Bland and Bobby Womack. “Singing the Blues” was written on one of those cruises. Some people told Ruthie you can’t have a major VII chord in the blues, but Bland’s set had plenty of them.

At this point in the show, Ruthie also talked about her the music she listened to growing up. Her mother was a big fan of gospel and blues, and she grew listening to that music. She came back to this in her encore, playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head.”

While Ruthie is a blues musician, she often covers songs written by artists in other genres, especially what would be considered Americana. Sunday’s set included covers of Lucinda William’s “Fruits of My Labor,” Patty Griffin’s “When It Don’t Come Easy,” and “Ring of Fire,” made famous by Johnny Cash, but actually written by his wife, June Carter. Foster brought her own spin to that last one, saying she saw an opportunity to do something “different” when she recorded it. The Williams cover is interesting, as Lucinda started as an acoustic blues player, and it’s always remained part of what she does.

Watch Ruthie Foster perform “Fruits of My Labor” by Lucinda Williams live on YouTube:

Foster isn’t a flamethrower, but there’s a distinctly feminist coloring to her music which is informed by her perspective as a Black woman from a small town who’s also seen the world in the service and in her twenty-five years of touring as a musician. This is clearest in “Phenomenal Women,” which sets the words to Maya Angelou’s poem to music.

And tour the world she has. She talked about her experiences in Riga, the capital of the former Soviet Republic of Latvia, where she played with a local/regional big band. She joked about how they thought she was Tracey Chapman, which is funny, because there isn’t an especially strong resemblance. She called the city beautiful, and she said it inspired her writing.

Ruthie also talked about her experiences recording with the legendary vocal group The Blind Boys of Alabama. She had only intended for them to work on a single song with her while she was recording in New Orleans, but, apparently, they were fond of the food she’d had brought in for the sessions and stuck around.

Other songs in the set included “Upon the Sky,” “Soul Searching,” and “Runaway Soul.” Unfortunately, my hand writing isn’t great, and there’s another song that is completely indecipherable to me as I look back at my notes. But it was great; everything Sunday night was great, especially Ruthie’s beautiful, powerful voice which made a collection of great songs even better. Whether she’s playing solo or worth a band, Foster always puts on a great show.


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