Move over Aretha, Gladys, and Roberta. Another lady is stepping out of the choir loft and she has a sermon or two to preach.
Let It Burn originated when Grammy Award-winning producer John Chelew suggested to Grammy-nominated blues singer Ruthie Foster that she record an album in New Orleans using some of the local talent. The result doesn’t have the typical Crescent City flavor, but instead reaches back, way back, into traditional gospel arrangements and Memphis grooves to reinvent a catalogue of songs from a rich variety of sources.
From start to finish, The Meters’ rhythm section, bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Russell Batiste, along with guitarist Dave Easley and saxophonist James Rivers, were joined by Hammond B3 master Ike Stubblefield to give Foster slow-burning support. And she shares the mic with some notable guest stars as well.
For example, the album is book-ended with two songs that are pure gospel, featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama, “Welcome Home” and the a capella “Titanic,” wherein God moved his mighty hand over the waters. (The Boys return on “Lord Remember Me,” a Foster original.) Foster sings one duet with William Bell, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” where a Rivers saxophone solo underlines the lyrics that no one misses water until the well runs dry.
Water isn’t the only elemental image throughout these selections. Adele’s “Set Fire To The Rain” is a bass-and-organ-driven tour de force where soul meets hard-thumping pop. What would have happened if Roberta Flack had refashioned a Johnny Cash tune? That’s sort of what occurs with “Ring of Fire,” a gentle reworking of the hit into a slow torch song. The flame of love still burns, even when the sun doesn’t shine in The Band’s “It Makes No Difference.” The Black Keys’ “Everlasting Light” features sizzling guitar, taking listeners on a “train away from pain.”
Of course, songs can be smoldering and fiery hot without lyrical imagery. For example, more church organ fills “This Time,” a Los Lobos tune where Foster tells her lover that Sunday is too late—that now’s the time. How does a mature woman attract a man? In another Foster original, remember what Mama said: “Aim For The Heart,” not the head.
Foster shows off her jazz chops on John Martyn’s “Don’t Want To Know,” which features intricate interweaving of two electric guitars and Stubblefield’s organ. Likewise, Pete Seeger’s “If I Had A Hammer” is a smoky bass and sax arrangement, as down and dirty as Foster gets in this collection. Finally, Foster’s version of the David Crosby penned “Long Time Gone” adds a church-choir power breathing new life into the old Crosby, Stills, and Nash harmonies.
Through the years, Foster has released albums that are better classified as blues. This set is the first collection on which she doesn’t play an instrument. So, for her followers, this one marks a bit of a departure, but it is still squarely planted in the same southern soil of her Texas roots. It’s “sho ’nuff” Gospel with nods to old-fashioned Atlantic/Stax releases and a tip of the hat to all the songwriters whose melodies are re-imagined here. James Taylor may have seen fire and rain, but Foster has turned them into serious ingredients in her soul kitchen.