Ruthie Foster
at Long's Park Amphitheater,
Lancaster, PA (13 July 2008)

Thousands of people stayed home and out of the rain Sunday evening, probably watching TV and congratulating themselves on keeping dry.

A few hundred people braved the weather to huddle under umbrellas in Long's Park. They were the lucky ones. Because, under the mottled gray storm clouds that threatened a downpour at any moment, folk and blues sensation Ruthie Foster defied the weather with song.

The crowd, which usually numbers in the thousands for the weekly music series in the park, numbered only in the low hundreds this week. That didn't phase Stella Sexton, series director with the Long's Park Amphitheater Foundation, who said, "Sometimes it's nice to have an intimate performance like this."

About a third of the crowd was huddled up front on the concrete pad usually reserved for dancing. In the rain, the projecting roof of the amphitheater provided valuable protection from the rain. The rest of the people were scattered on the lawn, many holding umbrellas or sheltering under blankets. And a few were off under the trees, ignoring generations of safety advice when there's lightning in the vicinity.

While a multitude of fair-weather fans stayed away, everyone who came out Sunday evening was rewarded with an exceptional performance in the park.

"Even though it's a little wet, we can still have a good time," Foster announced at the start of her show. Backed by Scott Miller on keyboard and mandolin, Samantha Banks on drums and some tap-dancin' spoons, and Tanya Richardson on five-string bass, singer/guitarist Foster plowed through a moving set of folk and blues, soul, a little country two-step, reggae and some a cappella revival-style gospel.

And through it all, she beamed.

Foster has been compared to Aretha Franklin so often it feels like cheating to mention it here. And the comparisons go on, from Tina Turner to Nina Simone, from Tracy Chapman to Joan Armatrading. Fans of Foster's music heard a lot of familiar songs, including "Richland Woman Blues," "Small Town Blues," "Grinnin' in Your Face" and the show-stopping reggae number "Real Love," which earned her a mid-concert standing ovation.

"I guess it's OK to do a rain song," she mused, with an eye on the sky. "It's a chance to wash things away and start over."

"Another Rain Song," a Foster original, was written in the style of Sam Cooke. And Foster, who wrote a majority of the songs she performed Sunday, wasn't shy on drawing from the well of her influences, past and contemporary, including Jessie Mae Hemphill, Terri Hendrix, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Lucinda Williams.

Foster is a diminutive singer -- just five feet tall -- who packs a voice strong enough to shake soggy leaves from the park's many trees. Her voice is rich and smooth and thick like honey, but with a touch of grit that adds spice to the music. Plus, she has amazing projection and some vocal sustains that had the audience gasping for breath.

"I love this kind of music, and I'm really enjoying this," said Jane Boyer, a Lancaster native now commuting from Lebanon and huddled under a black and red umbrella, a blissful smile on her face. "I was so worried they weren't going to have this tonight."

There was a small but steady stream of people coming into the park, perhaps reassured when a soaking rain failed to materialize. And perhaps it was the sound of enthusiastic applause that kept the rain and thunder away. Heavy gray clouds shifted ominously across the sky throughout Foster's show, but the rain never got harder than a half-hearted drizzle.

"I like these concerts, and I try to come to every one," said Gloria Toney, a Lancaster resident wearing a waterproof blue tarp as a shoulder wrap. "I never heard this lady, but I love music. I'll stay as long as it doesn't thunder and lightning. I'll stay semi-dry."

"I just like being here," said Merv Stoltzfus of Lancaster. "If I'm not away from home, I'm here."

Stoltzfus said he wasn't worried about the rain -- "I think it's done," he said confidently a few minutes before the show began -- but he kept an umbrella folded up in his hand just in case it rained again. It did.

Foster set herself a very high bar by releasing a new disc titled The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster. Her inspired performance Sunday -- full of heart and gusto -- made it clear she'd earned her stripes the old-fashioned way. She's called phenomenal because she is, it's as simple as that.

She closed the show with "Full Circle," then came back for an encore that included a resounding cover of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds."

"Sometimes you gotta dance in the rain," she told the crowd. "Now you take the celebration that we had this evening, and you spread it."

Foster sings the blues with joy, not sorrow, and she created her own little oasis of sunshine in the middle of a damp and rainy day.

by Tom Knapp
19 July 2008

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