The Ruthie Foster Big Band Swings the Best Live Record of the Year So Far

Photo: Courtesy of Conqueroo

Featuring several originals paired with timeless covers, Live at the Paramount finds the Ruthie Foster Big Band bringing the house down.

Live at the Paramount
Ruthie Foster Big Band

Blue Corn Music

15 May 2020

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.






PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.


NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.


South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.


Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.


Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.