Live Last Night: Ruthie Foster, Robben Ford, Jorma Kaukonen

The phenomenal Ruthie Foster, speaker of the truth.

Commercially speaking, blues music has been in a nosedive since Stevie Ray Vaughan's 1990 helicopter crash. The fall toward mainstream irrelevance was helped by the economic boom the country enjoyed for most of the rest of that decade: When everybody's making money, woe-is-me messages such as "The Thrill Is Gone" -- no matter how soulfully delivered -- won't hit home with much of an audience.

But bad news is back in vogue, and the lousier-by-the-minute economy on everybody's mind these days should serve as a stimulus package for a blues revival. The genre's ready, desperate even, for some new blood. For somebody like Ruthie Foster.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

The Texas-based belter, who opened a powerhouse bill at the State Theatre on Wednesday alongside blues elders Jorma Kaukonen and Robben Ford, gets compared to Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald in much of her press. But on this night, Foster seemed much more under the influence of Bonnie Raitt. In solo and ensemble sets during the two-and-a-half hour show, Foster showed off Raitt-like pop instincts and slide guitar skills, plus a huge voice and an even bigger smile.

Foster, in fact, has the smile of a gospel singer, not a blueswoman. Blues folks go down to the crossroads to make deals with the devil. But when knocking out acoustic blues tunes including her own "Joy" and Rosetta Tharpe's "Up Above My Head," Foster beamed like somebody who made an afterlife pact, only with somebody other than Beelzebub. For all her chops, Foster might be too happy to promote the blues.

Ford, a veteran guitar hero whose amazing resume includes playing in touring bands of Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and George Harrison, led his own power trio through a set of electric blues highlighted by a long jam on Willie Dixon's "Spoonful." He flaunted the hair and hand speed of a man much younger than 57.

Music has kept Kaukonen youthful, too. The 68-year-old D.C. native (Wilson High, Class of '59) finger-picked country blues tunes from his days with West Coast hippie heroes, Hot Tuna, including "Let Us Get Together Right Down Here."

Kaukonen's career started as lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane, and he showed he can still make noise by plugging in a hollow-body Gibson and, backed by Ford's band, ripping through a fuzzy blooze version of the standard, "Rock Me Baby."

The night ended with Foster holding her own while joining Kaukonen and Ford to take turns singing"You Gotta Serve Somebody." That's a blues tune Bob Dylan wrote in the 1970s about his own sort of crossroads deal, one that didn't take.

-- DAVE MCKENNA

By J. Freedom du Lac |  February 19, 2009; 9:55 AM ET Live Last Night
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