Texas singer, songwriter and combo-leader Ruthie Foster made her Savannah Music Festival debut two years ago, and the response was overwhelming. Foster was voted "Audience Favorite" for the year, and invited back for another round of appearances.
That finally came to pass in 2012, and apparently Savannah hasn't forgotten this bright-eyed woman with the million-dollar smile, the Whoopi Goldberg dreads and the soul-rattling voice of a blues diva. Foster had four Morris Center shows over the festival's first weekend, two on Saturday and two on Sunday. All were sellouts.
Foster's music blends rhythm ‘n' blues, pop, folk and even rock, sometimes in unexpected and beguiling ways (she turned June Carter's "Ring of Fire" into a smoky slice of lounge jazz, for example).
She and her three-member band sang an a capella spiritual ("People Grinnin' in Your Face"), played exciting, full-tilt reggae ("Real Love") and turned New England songsmith Patty Griffin's "When It Don't Come Easy" into a soul-infused anthem of defiance.
Foster's spectacular vocal range was in full flower on the anthemic "Phenomenal Woman," a song with lyrics so inspiring they ought to be etched in marble somewhere, for everyone to see.
A big part of the onstage magic was Foster herself, who came across as positive but not in a phony showbiz way, as likeable but not because she was trying too hard. She seemed to deciding on the songs to play depending solely on her mood.
"You guys OK, you gettin' what you need?" Foster asked the audience twice during the show.
You believed she meant it. You simply couldn't help but like her. And when she opened her mouth to sing, the hook was set. There was no escape.
The opening act, Tennessee's Campbell Brothers, presented a swinging, all-fervor, hands-in-the-air revival meeting.
Well, it was a "Come-to-Jesus" concert - or at least the Savannah Music Festival version of one.
The band features what's become known in Southern Pentecostal church services as "sacred steel" music - along with electric guitar, bass and drums, the lineup includes an electric lap steel and a pedal steel guitar, both of which wail and howl and call forth the benevolent will of God.
It was fun. The roof was (briefly) raised.
And by the time Ruthie Foster was halfway through her first song, I'd forgotten all about them.