Phenomenal Women

Ruthie Foster at Yoshi'sThere is nothing like a live performance by a performer who thrives on an audience. Brenda Clough wrote about seeing Bruce Springsteen recently, reminding me that seeing him is on my bucket list.

But The Boss is not the only musician who rocks the live show. I saw the amazing Ruthie Foster, accompanied on drums by the redoubtable Samantha Banks, on Labor Day, and the crowd was dancing in the aisles.

Ruthie is an award-winning performer and has a devoted following, but she’s not so well-known that she can’t play the occasional small venue. I saw her at Yoshi’s in Oakland along with a couple of hundred other people. It wasn’t quite as intimate a room as the Cactus Café in Austin (where I’ve seen her a couple of times), but it was relaxed enough that Ruthie and Samantha exchanged jokes as well as playing and singing wonderful songs.

Ruthie’s voice is spectacular, and so is her guitar picking and Samantha’s drumming (and spoon-playing!). And her wide-ranging music choices – rooted in blues and gospel, but also informed by country, soul, R&B, and a lot of women singer-songwriters – are just icing on the cake. But it’s her sheer presence, her aliveness, that makes the show so wonderful.

About that eclectic song list: Who else combines the work of Mavis Staples, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Johnny Cash? (BTW, Ruthie once sang her version of “Ring of Fire” – which is very different from the original – for Roseanne Cash, who said it was the “second-best” version she ever heard.)

And that’s not to mention her own compositions.

Another great thing about Ruthie is that you can see her without having to mortgage your house for the tickets or sitting in the nosebleed section. But I don’t think that’s gonna last. These days in Austin, you’re more likely to see her at the Paramount Theatre downtown than in one of the local clubs. People know her in Austin and she draws too big a crowd for the Cactus these days.

I titled this piece “Phenomenal Women” partly in honor of the wonderful rendition Ruthie gave of “Phenomenal Woman,” which puts to music the poem by Maya Angelou.  But I used women rather than woman deliberately, because Samantha is also phenomenal (I wasn’t the only person in the audience who was thrilled to see that she was along on this tour.), and also because the founder of the club where they performed is yet another phenomenal woman.

Yoshi Akiba, who founded the club, was orphaned in Japan by World War II. She came to the US to study dance, and founded the club while a student at Berkeley. It’s billed as the premiere jazz club in the Bay Area, and it’s certainly a wonderful place to see good musicians.

Plus it’s a very good Japanese restaurant as well. We had sushi before the show. The restaurant and club are set up for that – they’ll save your seat in the club portion if you have dinner in the restaurant. It’s very fascinating – and very Oakland – to have a club that specializes in jazz and blues music associated with a Japanese restaurant.

Not only that, Akiba is active in a Zen Center in Oakland with her husband, a Zen priest,, and is known for her tea ceremony. I find it a wonderful that someone can deeply appreciate  both key elements from her birth culture and music that is rooted in African American heritage.

Between the music and the venue, I feel like I got a whirlwind cultural tour. Phenomenal women all around.



Phenomenal Women — 2 Comments

  1. We should assemble a list of performers that it is worth making the effort to see live. There are quite a few, possibly most, for whom the recorded music is actually better. (Are concerts by the Rolling Stones as good as their albums?)

    • I’d put Joe Ely on such a list. He’s still a high-energy performer, too, even though he’s around the same age as Bruce.

      To my mind, the thing that makes these people best heard live is that they draw from the audience — either they interact or they get more energy from playing live before enthusiastic listeners. It’s also why going to see live theater with some actors is so much better than watching even the best filmed version.