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Published: 2012/02/01
by Brian Robbins

Ruthie Foster
Let It Burn

Blue Corn Music

If you had somehow managed to miss crossing paths with Ruthie Foster’s music in the past – including her 2009 Grammy-nominated The Truth According To Ruthie Foster from 2009 – chances are good that 2011 changed all that, thanks to Warren Haynes. By the second cut on Haynes’ Man In Motion (a Grammy nominee itself) you were tearing into the liner notes, wondering, “Who was that?” doing backing vocals on “River’s Gonna Rise” – and the answer would’ve been Ruthie Foster, sounding like a cross between Merry Clayton and Mahalia Jackson as she wove her voice around Haynes’ big Gibson.

Foster’s new _Let It Burn _ finds her stepping forward with her own band behind her. And oh! What a band it is: funk kings George Porter Jr. (bass) and Russell Batiste (drums); B-3 legend Ike Stubblefield; New Orleans saxmaster James Rivers; and guitarist Dave Easley, who can pull off everything from way-cool smooth jazz riffs to slide work that combines the world-blues vibe of Derek Trucks with the melodic feel of Chris Rea.

The album’s songs are a mix of Foster originals and covers – some of which might raise an eyebrow on paper, but will blow you away when you put an ear to them. For instance, consider her take on June Carter’s “Ring Of Fire”, made famous by ol’ Johnny Cash. Foster’s arrangement strips away the chicka-boom rhythm and mariachi horns of Cash’s version, slowing things down to a sleepy-eyed glow and nestling into the love story that is at the song’s core. Her delivery is sultry and intimate, as if sung across the pillowcases.

The Band’s “It Makes No Difference” is treated with respect and admiration (Stubblefield’s keys are powerful, supporting Foster’s vocal brilliantly); the Blind Boys of Alabama are on hand for a funky-assed take on David Crosby’s “Long Time Gone” with Easley’s guitar soaring over top of it all; and the street smarts and coolness of Los Lobos’ “This Time” get kicked up a notch by Foster and her band.

“Welcome Home” (a Foster-penned tune) ushers the album in sounding like a deeply textured Staples Singers classic. The Blind Boys are on hand for that one, as well – along with “Lord Remember Me”, another Ruthie original. After a great acapella opening, the band kicks in at the 0:55 mark: Batiste and Porter couldn’t get any slinkier without getting arrested, while Stubblefield lets the big B-3 chords roar majestically. Easley’s slide guitar is killer on this track, melding with the chorus as yet another buttery, soulful voice.

One of the album’s many highlights is a take on The Black Keys’ “Everlasting Light”. If there’s such a thing as sexy gospel, this is it right here, boys and girls. Foster digs deep and lets it pour out in sensuous joy. The mood and the spirit build and by the time the band reaches the final verse, there’s no stopping them. Foster begins testifying and Easley and Stubblefield answer her right back; Porter and Batiste let it roll in a total rave-up that feels like it could have gone on until the roof caved in.

All told, Let It Burn is chock full of soul, passion, and energy – a delight to listen to.

Hallelujah! for Ruthie Foster.

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