RUTHIE FOSTER "The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster" Blue Corn

Friday, March 30, 2007

WHEN RUTHIE FOSTER performed at the South by Southwest Music Conference two weeks ago, the short, dreadlocked singer demanded attention with the sheer power of her mezzo-soprano. With an acoustic guitar strapped around her neck and singing the Lucinda Williams song "Fruits of My Labor," Foster resembled a folk singer on the verses. But when she tilted back her head and belted out the chorus, she revealed her background in the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Caldwell, Tex.

That blend of singer-songwriter folk music and African American gospel (the same blend that has distinguished Odetta and Richie Havens) is evident on Foster's new album, "The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster." Recorded with some of Austin's top session musicians, including labelmate Gurf Morlix and producer Malcolm "Papa Mali" Welbourne, the CD offers an elegant frame for Foster's booming voice on such songs as Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Up Above My Head" and Eric Bibb's "A Friend Like You."

They are strong songs, and the singing is gorgeous. The songwriting is less impressive on the five originals, and Foster sometimes lapses into mannered, belt-it-out vocals, as if the force and fullness of her instrument rendered questions of interpretation moot. They don't.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Friday at Rams Head Tavern and Saturday at Jammin' Java.

Listen to an audio clip of Ruthie Foster

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