It’s no surprise Austin singer/songwriter Ruthie Foster has an album in her catalog titled The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster. Anyone who’s heard her sing, listened to her songs, or watched her lead a band, has no doubt of the veracity of that title. We here at Austin City Limits have known how phenomenal she is since her 2003 debut on the show, so we were thrilled to welcome her back for her second knockout taping, which included new songs from an upcoming 2021 album and Foster classics.
“I know we’ve been dealing with some tough times, so I wanted to start with this song,” Foster noted, opening with a new track, “Four a.m.,” a folky ode to late-night composition featuring keyboardist/mandolinist Scottie Miller on counterpoint vocals. Foster introduced viewers to “Pearl,” her minty green Gretsch guitar, and welcomed a powerhouse trio of backing vocalists to the stage, Sheree Smith, Tamara Mack and Torri Baker, for “Brand New Day,” a funky, gospel-flavored number that would shine a light in any dark world. Foster and company then shifted directly to gospel, specifically a joyful take on “Up Above My Head,” a classic from one of her early influences, the pioneering singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe. “I really do believe there’s a heaven,” she sang, making a believer out of everyone. Foster continued demonstrating how to make a song her own with a surprising seventies soul ballad rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” She then put down Pearl and led the band into the empowerment anthem “Phenomenal Woman,” showcasing both her powerhouse vocal chops and her confident joy.
After that showstopper, it was time to magnify the mood with “Singing the Blues,” a groovy R&B song co-written with Stax soul legend William Bell. “Feels like Freedom” followed, another anthem that Foster borrowed from the catalog of an unnamed singer/songwriter after first hearing it. The easygoing soul/pop tune “Love is the Answer” came from a source closer to home: her bassist Larry Fulcher, who revealed he wrote it in a dream. Foster and her ace four-piece band – which also included guitarist Haddon Sayers and famous Austin session drummer Brannen Temple – then dipped into the catalog of the mighty Staples Singers for “The Ghetto,” a gorgeous, piercing bit of social commentary. While that song brooded, however, “Healing Time” – co-composed by Foster, Sayers and Miller – celebrated, bringing an upbeat soul groove to its message of positivity and healing. “I feel that one,” smiled Foster. “Y’all feel that one?”
“I want to send more healing vibes to you and your families,” Foster said, addressing everyone watching the live stream around the world. That meant the rousing “Woke Up This Morning,” a socially conscious soul/gospel number that raised the roof with more good vibes that seemed to surprise Foster herself. “Somebody opened the door and let Hallelujah in the house!” She then asserted, “Let’s go down to Mississippi for a while,” bringing the blues into the house with the raw, earthy “Runaway Soul.” Miller and Sayers both contributed superlative solos, the backup singers took everyone to church, and Foster outdid herself with a vocal performance that would make the dead rise and give thanks. It was a magnificent end to a wonderful show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs next January as part of our Season 46 on your local PBS station.