On 26 January 2019, the Ruthie Foster Big Band took the stage at the historic Paramount Theater in Austin. Foster’s most recent release centralizes the big band era as the artist moving away from her renowned blues persona. Backed by a guitarist, keyboardist, bassist, drummer, ten horn players, vocalists, and conductor, Foster was not to be outdone: her power is unmistakable throughout. Featuring several originals paired with timeless covers, Live at the Paramount finds the Ruthie Foster Big Band bringing the house down.
Foster sets the album’s tone by opening with her own “Brand New Day” and “Might Not Be Right”. With the hushed background vocals and limited percussion, she delivers her vocal magnitude. “Brand New Day” regenerates a positive energy much as it did when it was first released in 2014. “Might Not Be Right” expresses her support of gay marriage despite homophobia’s ubiquity. Perhaps not an entirely radical sentiment, her standpoint is subversive for the blues genre. More so, her message, “they speculate and hate / negative thoughts don’t control my fate”, is an enduring axiom. Foster’s approach to blues was never to wallow in pessimism. She often illustrates, and do so readily on this release, how times of defeat make way for light.
With renewal also comes empowerment, as heard in “Phenomenal Woman“. Using the words of Dr. Maya Angelou’s poem of the same name, Foster’s song reiterates the capability of women to overcome systematic oppression. Foster’s strength is undeniable and plentiful enough that she extends her power to her predecessors. As one of her encores, she covers “Mack the Knife” made famous by Bobby Darin and then Frank Sinatra. But Foster reinserts black women’s musical contributions when she pays tribute to Ella Fitzgerald in the song’s opening and closing moments. In doing so, she reminds the audience of the legacy of African-American women musicians and their historical erasure. Here, Foster uses her visibility to extend empowerment to the past and honor Fitzgerald in the way she earned — through the music.
Live at the Paramount finds Foster reshaping the covers to reflect her musical styling. That’s what she means by introducing her cover of “Ring of Fire” as “Johnny Cash like you may not have heard… can we do my version of Ring of Fire?” By evoking hints of Roberta Flack, Foster replaces the song’s hubris and acerbity with vulnerability and warmth. The background vocalists add a touch of softness, emphasizing the portrayal of all-encompassing love. It would have been so easy for Foster to use the big band to revamp Cash’s original horn riff. But Foster is purposeful in removing the identifiable horns from her cover, thereby solidifying its serenity while capturing this version as her own.
As the album progresses, her penchant for revitalizing her music with hope continues. She strips the hokey whistling from Guy Chestnut’s “Singing the Blues” and infuses a funky R & B vibe without losing the original’s glow. When she calls to “swing it” in “Woke Up This Morning”, Foster shifts the track from a classic spiritual to a rosier rendering. “The Ghetto” and “Joy Comes Back” use a distinct soul sound interlaced with gospel to reaffirm her message of hope. In doing so, these tracks musically suggest the sadness is temporary and redemption is forthcoming.
Her big band has its time to shine. The bass in “Runaway Soul” is mesmerizing while the call-and-response between Foster and the saxophone is showstopping. In “Dust My Broom”, she steps away to give the band space and summons them “to testify”. The band’s musicality is spectacular as they build from quietude to celebration. For instance, “Stone Love” starts with a jazzy piano that blossoms into full band crescendo.
Foster’s vocals match the band’s intensity, and in an almost competitive show, her non-lexical vocals thunder alongside the instrumentation in “Stone Love”. Both the group and Foster create an extraordinary sound, their abilities reaching a musical apex. If it was actually a competition, Foster wins, as her voice outlasts the band’s music. Off the mic, you can hear Foster laughing and exclaiming, “what was that? Yeah! Good, God!” A felicitous reminder of the passion and energy she constructs during each of the performances.
Indeed, Foster’s ability to enshrine her music as an experience is adroitly conveyed in Live at the Paramount. Foster’s daughter sweetly yet nervously introduces her mother. Listeners can hear Foster tenderly coaching her daughter on what to say, showing an easily forgettable gentleness when considering Foster’s powerful presence. Live at the Paramount maintains an easygoing and fun atmosphere. Foster laughs and jokes throughout, and the audience responds with playful cheers, yelling, “Bring it!” and “Go Ruthie!” The wild applause she receives at the end of “Death Came a Knockin’ (Travelin’ Shoes) is evidence of a dazzled audience.
It’s so tough for some artists to reproduce the energy of a live performance. But the Ruthie Foster Big Band’s magnanimous appeal inflates any potential languor. Together they indisputably position Live at the Paramount as one of the best live albums of 2020.