In two shows on two nights, Ruthie Foster and John Lee Hooker Jr. bring two traditions to life.
Thursday, March 1, 2007
Musical knowledge can be passed on in the conservatory as well as on the bandstand, but it’s no coincidence that many of the most soulful musicians have honed their act while sharing stages with more experienced players.
Ruthie Foster, for example, has been soaking up musical wisdom from Bo Diddley, a foundational figure in American music who introduced a pulse that’s still at the heart of rock ’n’ roll. A rising R&B star who boasts a tremendously soulful sound, Foster performed in the Monterey area last September at the Sunset Center as part of a two-month tour with Diddley, and the experience of being on the road with him left a deep impression.
“He is a living legend and a kind, giving soul, a beautiful man,” says Foster, 43, who headlines her own gig at Monterey Live on Sunday, backed by bassist Tanya Richardson and drummer Samantha Banks. “And he’s an incredible storyteller. We were on tour for two months, and I was really watching and learning how he tells a story. He knows how to get an audience with him.”
The Austin-based Foster knows a little something about winning over an audience herself. After a decade-long run as a favorite on the coffeehouse and folk-festival circuit, she’s unleashed her inner R&B queen with her new, aptly-titled album The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster. She set out on her new path at the urging of Louisiana slide guitarist Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne, who first met her at a gig in College Station, Tex. They ended up jamming together on the Staples Singers hit “I’ll Take You There,” and Welbourne was smitten.
“From that moment on it was etched in my brain that Ruthie is a soul singer of the highest order,” Welbourne says. “When I saw her live a few years later, I was surprised. It was just her and a percussionist. It was more of a folk festival affair, more Odetta than Aretha.”
In many ways, Welbourne turned Foster back to her roots. Raised in a central Texas household suffused with gospel, soul and country music, she first performed as a child in a local Missionary Baptist church, playing guitar and piano and singing in the choir. Enamored with poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou, she started writing her own songs in junior high.
Her love of music carried her through her teenage years, but by the time she graduated with a degree in commercial music from McLennan Community College in Waco, Foster wanted to see what “normal life” had to offer. Enlisting in the Navy, she ended up working as an aviation storekeeper with a helicopter squad, a position that she loved. But when her executive officer heard her singing at a Christmas party, he told her she should audition for the Navy band, and she ended up plunging back into music. Her first albums were well received, but tended to emphasize her folkie side. With The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster, she’s staking a claim as one of the most commanding soul singers on the scene.
“The CD came at a time in my life when I was really ready to meld all of these different types of music that I grew up listening to,” Foster says. “My mother was a big soul music fan, and I had that in my sound, because I grew up singing that with her. Running into Papa Mali made it all come together.”
Another artist coming through Monterey this weekend learned his craft at the feet of a master, though in John Lee Hooker Jr.’s case, the connection was established at birth. Hooker, who plays Monterey Live on Saturday, started his career as a child. Touring with his father, the blues legend John Lee Hooker, he contributed vocals on the 1972 album Live at Soledad Prison. But instead of making a name for himself, Hooker fell into hard times, losing 25 years to addiction and prison.
In a remarkable comeback, Hooker released a powerful statement with 2004’s Blues With a Vengeance, an album that established his own musical identity with a sound that’s inspired by jump blues and jazz as much as the Delta boogie associated with his father. The album earned a Grammy nomination in the Traditional Blues Album category and won the W.C. Handy Award for Best New Artist Debut.
His latest album, last year’s Cold As Ice, is on the highly regarded Telarc label, and it’s an even more confident statement by an artist who is right where he wants to be.
“There was no urgency that I better hurry up, everything’s natural,” says Hooker, who performs with a quintet featuring guitarist Jeffrey James, bassist Kennan Shaw, keyboardist Gig Anderson, and Mike Rogers. “There’s no shadow over me about my daddy. I’m not trying to climb out of his mold. I’m just me. It’s time to get back to work. Drugs and prison, I was through with that. It’s time to live and use the gift that God has given to me. Why should I be depriving music lovers all over the world?”
JOHN LEE HOOKER JR. performs at 7:30pm on Saturday, and Ruthie Foster performs on at 8:30pm Sunday. Both shows are $15. Monterey Live, 414 Alvarado St., 375-5483, montereylive.net.