Ruthie Foster

Ruthie FosterLeft - Ruthie Foster. Photos - Mary Keating Bruton

Ngaiire (Joseph) is originally from the highlands of PNG. At Bulli's bulletproof bastion of blues, folk-rock and more, she opened for the indelible Ruthie Foster, at the latter's behest. Quite a score.

Being more your classically Abrahamic Idol-basher and smasher & catholic, cavalier, theoretically non-existent radio slut, as against avid viewer or listener, in my ostrich-like way, I hadn't heard of her through either the Idolatrous or Unearthed media. I'm glad to have discovered her, albeit belatedly.

First, if not foremost, she has incredible hair. My companion spoke of a Fijian girl she went to school with, afflicted with, it seems, practically every other student's veritable need to touch hers. Ngaiire's cries out for such contact: a stoic, gravity-defying, Kravitz-like sponge; arguably the most prominent, dominant part of her petite frame. Apart from her powerhouse voicebox, that is.

Despite being a popular cont(e)stant and finalist on AusIdol 2, she has studiously and steadfastly stuck to her musical guns, continuing her jazz studies at the central Queensland con, in Mackay. Fame hasn't despoiled her, despite the pressures and temptations of a high profile. Back home, she's released a song in pidgin, but it was probably her ARIA club chart-topper, in collaboration with Paul Mac, that really drew attention: the deviously-twisted, It's Not Me, It's You. Ouch! She's toured her mother land, as well as this one, not to mention 'die welt', with Blue King Brown; been on Rage and Spicks 'n' Specks. She even has merchandise: a trucker's cap.

None of the above does it for me, but her music, sure as sheep, does. (OK, so I might be a little more impressed by Rolling Stone's rightly optimistic estimation of her trajectory, as well as the Blue King Brown affiliation. Oh, and the fact John Butler specifically requested she precede his set at the last East Coast Blues 'n' Roots festival. Frankly, he's damn lucky she didn't blow him offstage.) Like so many 'acts', these days, she's hard to confine. Roots. Indie. Blues. But 'new-skool soul' might come closest. She's arrived at this musical juncture, however you might care to describe it, via Ella and Joni; quite divergent influences which have, clearly, had a magical and transformational, as well as formative, impact. And her grandmother sang. All three, apparently, were influences in, more-or-less, equal measure. Leonard Cohen's in there somewhere, too. Donnie Hathaway I can well-believe. Norwegian experimentalist Hanne Hukkelberg? Look her up in your Funk 'n' Wagnall's. Or on MySpace.

Paul Mac has described her, a little unusually, but with odd accuracy, as a 'diminutive bomb of goodness'. All observers seem to agree, as to her sass, sincerity and soulfulness. So do I. Her voice has a soaring, glorious, caramel quality few can match. I'm thinking, move over Tina Harrod & Renee Geyer (not that I could ever forsake those true loves). She's so good, I'd go so far as to say it was brave of even Ruthie to take her on. Suffice to say, I'm salivating over the thought of her debut album, due early next year. This, on the strength of swaying, almost shanty-like, intoxicating island tunes, like Glorious, built around the simplest, most mesmerising guitar-strumming, with some ethereal harmonies. It's heavenly jazz-folk, with a floating, angelic purity fresh, rare & completely transporting; like a massage, in a breezy Balinese hut, at sunset. Every bit as dreamy and therapeutic. Trust me, you'll be as driftwood, in its addictive hold . A 'had me at hello' kind of song.

Someone has said Ngaiire could sing the phonebook and make it sound good. They're not wrong. If I had one crit, it would be of a propensity to mask, obscure and bury lyrics, albeit in a quest, I think, for using the voice as a beautiful instrument.

To the best of my knowledge, Ngaiire writes and plays a mean acoustic and is fortunate enough to have the prodigiously versatile Marcello Maio at her beck and call, on keyboards and accordion. He certainly was this evening, which would've been somewhat lesser without his considerable contributions. The empathic drummer's name, also well-worthy of similar affirmation, I didn't catch.

To Ruthie. Blues Revue has described her sound as 'a full-on blast of blues and soul'. Got it, in one. Like Ngaiire's, her voice is as blow-you-away as (Hurricane) Katrina's. Yes indeed, despite her unashamed Texan roots, her sound often locates itself somewhere between New Orleans and the electrifying heritage of Chicago. The Truth According To Ruthie Foster, her latest (and possibly greatest) album, delivers authenticity, her honeyed vocal timbre, and catchy tunes, like Truth, with its rock-out raunchy guitar riff. Truth ain't hard to find, she reckons. Well, maybe not, if you're Ruthie. It's right where she is.

Blues isn't her only forte. Her other love is reggae. Hence, when she sings a song from the newie, like I Really Love You, you know she really loves you. The truth, according to Ruthie, is very much the mantle of my own mantra, 'to thine own self', etecetera. Her songs acknowledge the dirty truth of existence: it isn't always pretty. Her message seems to be rise above; transcend; don't let the proverbial, multitudinous bastards get you down. Onya, Ruthie! If anyone could fortify us, musically at least, to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous sorrow, in the jungle that's so palpably out there, it's RF. While and in acknowledging effortless downhill slides, she ekes out inspiration and, above all, celebration. Life, says Ruthie, sure as hell beats the alternative. Don't worry; be happy! At the end of the day, maybe Abe Lincoln was right: 'folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be'. At least us folks: those spared the ignominy of warzones, outright poverty, disease, famine, natural & other disasters. It's an upbeat, uplifting message, nowhere better or more cogently expressed than in her live context, where she shines; a beacon, risen up, from the humble Brazos Valley, smack-bang in Texas central.

Stone Love swings like a demon, and should see you convinced of, and a true believer in, your self-worth, in a few minutes flat. And the tunes discussed thus far barely even touch the sides: there's plenty to revel in from the back catalogue, too; not least from '07's The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster (with songs this strong, why be falsely modest?!). From it also comes the apt Phenomenal Woman, a soul ballad after Aretha, or even the blue-eyed stuff of which classic Carole King is made.

Heal Yourself was one of innumerable high points; a gutsy one which, as I recall, saw the most determinedly, steadfastly motionless audience-members showing at least a modicum of hip, leg and shoulder movement. It features one of my favourite RF lyrics: 'you were born in the backseat of America'; effectively, a pithy, evocative putdown for fence-sitters and armchair critics everywhere.

This time 'round, as opposed to last tour, she brought her sisters in song, as it were: Samantha Banks, on kit; cousin, Tanya Richardson, on bass. They're a tight unit, that gives no quarter, on any grounds; lending the notion of 'girl bands' an utterly different perspective. While the coffeehouse intimacy of Ruthie, a guitar, and you, isn't to be underestimated, for a really good time, call the full band!

Hers is poetic, redemptive songwriting, steeped in an uncompromisingly rootsy Southern sound, which, as has been pointed out elsewhere, is, finally, genre-defying. The Washington Post, for instance, has observed Ruthie has the smile of a gospel singer, not a blueswoman's demeanour. All this, and more. There's a sophistication and fine-tuned quality in her voice, too, which bespeaks jazz. No surprise she's also been compared with Ella.

By the time she gets to staple encores, like No Woman, No Cry, she has you in the palm of her hand. But she won't squish you, like Marilyn Manson would, if he, in his wildest dreams, ever held you in the palm of his hand. She won't bite your head off, like Alice or Ozzie. She'll just lift you up. And up. And up.

So, if somebody asks you what it really means to be true, you can answer, with absolute legitimacy &, better yet, street-cred, Ruthie! Ain't that the truth?!


Ruthie Foster

Venue: Heritage Hotel, Bulli
Date: Friday 24
Bookings: 02 4284 5884 | www.heritagehotel.com.au
Visit: www.ruthiefoster.com

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