Concert Review: Ruthie Foster and Paul Thorn at the Birchmere

Juli Thanki | March 12th, 2012

RuthieFoster1photocreditJohnCarricoFor a few hours, a concert hall was temporarily transformed into a church, thanks to singer-songwriters Ruthie Foster and Paul Thorn, who brought their “Soul Salvation Tour” to the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia last Wednesday. Thorn won the audience over in the first seconds of his 45 minute set as he said, in a raspy drawl thick as Mississippi mud, “I’m gonna sing some songs I made up. I hope you like ‘em,” before tearing into the defiant “I’m Still Here.” Songs like “Burn Down the Trailer Park” and “It’s a Great Day (For Me to Whoop Somebody’s Ass)” got the rowdiest crowd reaction, but Thorn’s best songs are his more serious, spiritual ones, like “That’s Life,” a song whose lyrics are made up of his mother’s sayings, “What Have You Done to Lift Somebody Up?” and the tender set closer, “When the Long Road Ends.”

Thorn is a consummate storyteller, with an ear for sharply-tuned phrases, a frequently self-deprecating sense of humor, and an ability to engage the room like few others. Blues singer Ruthie Foster showed similar qualities during her fantastic fourteen-song set, wryly introducing “Aim for the Heart” as “a song we pitched to Bonnie Raitt…she pitched it right back.”

Foster, joined by her band – drummer Samantha Banks and Tanya Richardson on bass and fiddle – delivered a tight, well-paced set mostly composed of cuts from her newest album, Let It Burn. Her rich, soulful voice and serious guitar chops took classic country and blues songs and made them her own, turning “Ring of Fire” into a slow burn and giving “Death Came A Knockin’ (Travelin’ Shoes)” a funk edge. Mississippi John Hurt and Terri Hendrix songs (“Richland Woman Blues” and “Hole in My Pocket,” respectively) rounded out a solid set list that paid tribute American roots music’s past while still sounding fresh and contemporary. The highlight of the evening came when the two acts sang together as Foster pulled a tambourine-wielding “Brother Thorn” back onstage for a rafter-rattling version of Rosetta Tharpe’s call-and-response gospel song “Up Above My Head” that had a decent-sized chunk of the crowd singing and clapping along like they were at Sunday service. Granted, based on the number of empty bottles the servers were clearing away as the house lights came back up, the evening may not have saved many souls, but it sure soothed some.

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