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By Kelly Carmichael

Artist:  Ruthie Foster

Date / Venue:  Wednesday 6th March, Town Hall, Auckland

Performing at Auckland Town Hall on the opening night of Auckland Arts FestivalRuthie Foster delivered a stand out performance that had the crowd in the palm of her hand. First introduced to New Zealand audiences when she supported BB King in Auckland two years ago, this time Foster was back as the main act and with a ready-made fan base.

Beginning with ‘Small Town Blues’ Ruthie Foster took to the stage with three band mates and an eclectic batch of songs to share. Moving from blues to gospel, soul, R&B and even a little reggae and folk with fluid ease, the award-winning Texas born artist demonstrated her multi-faceted repertoire and phenomenal, soul-stirring voice for a solid hour and half without break. Supported on the mandolin and keyboards by the equally talented Scottie Miller, these two musicians led a spirited, uplifting, soul touching and foot stomping sound, backed by a 5-string bass guitar and drums. The interplay between Foster and Miller was unique, at times shadowing or leading each other with an unspoken connection.

With the magnificent Auckland Town Hall organ as her backdrop, Ruthie Foster gave the audience some of her most well known hits such as the rousing ‘Phenomenal Women’, an adaptation of Maya Angelou‘s poem, and a couple of surprising interpretations on old classics. The undoubted highlight was a completely reconstructed version of ‘Ring of Fire’ guaranteed to haunt your thoughts and stay in your heart forever. Stripped of its mariachi trumpets and bouncy delivery, Foster gave us an intimate, rhythmic, and poignant lament to love so intense it burns. Written by June Carter early in her relationship with the volatile Johnny Cash, the song seems closer to its original meaning back in the hands of another woman. Ruthie Foster’s arrangement makes you realise that you knew the tune but not the words of this song.

Foster is an artist rightly celebrated for her rich, soaring powerhouse of a voice. But what you can’t understand from the CDs or clips on YouTube is the way in which she connects – with her band, with her audience and even, it seems, with something altogether less tangible. When Ruthie Foster returned to the gospel music of her childhood, the whole performance went up a notch. ‘Welcome Home’ from her Grammy nominated new album ‘Let It Burn’ showed Foster’s voice, power and heart while the glorious ‘People Grinnin’ In Your Face’ was a soulful a capella, accompanied only by light percussion and hand claps. Spirited and uplifting, with a raw talent and few bells and whistles, Ruthie Foster gave a great performance and will surely be welcomed back to Auckland with ecstatic applause. The same way she left the stage.