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Review: Guitars, Ruthie Foster sing on Aspen stage

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesJorma Kaukonen, left, and Ruthie Foster at the Guitar Blues concert Wednesday night at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.
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ASPEN ” The name of the show Wednesday night at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House was Guitar Blues, and the three billed performers were Jorma Kaukonen, Robben Ford and Ruthie Foster. But it’s possible that the best parts of the show were neither guitars nor blues. And in the clear highlight moment, the three billed stars had to share credit with someone who wasn’t in the house ” Bob Dylan.

While Kaukonen and Ford showed their mastery of distinct guitar styles ” the former shining on acoustic finger-picking; the latter on electric jazz-blues fusion ” it was Foster’s voice that got the biggest response. Foster, a Texas-based singer, had to get right to it: Her opening solo set was remarkably short, just four songs. But a voice like hers ” enormous without losing its earthy feel, and full of a church background ” doesn’t take long to warm up to. Her musical make-up includes blues, but on a cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air),” gospel was the prominent tone, and she also touched on reggae and folk as much as blues.

Kaukonen, up next with a somewhat longer set, has become a familiar presence in Aspen, appearing regularly with his long-running band Hot Tuna. But this was his first time, at least in recent memory, performing solo, and it proved an excellent way to experience his take on guitar blues. Relying heavily on Hot Tuna material, rather than his recent string of solo albums, Kaukonen demonstrated a masterful touch on finger-picked, rural blues. With no other musicians to focus on, all attention was on the picking ” Kaukonen’s voice plays second fiddle ” and this nimble, soulful technique merits such close listening.



After a break, Ford emerged, backed with a drums-and-bass rhythm section. Ford’s set offered a sharp contrast to Kaukonen’s. Both played in recognizable blues structures, but where Kaukonen’s playing recalled an old tradition, Ford’s electric fireworks, full of wah-wah pedals and jazz riffs and chords, seemed to push the blues forward. Ford, too, is only a so-so singer, but like Kaukonen, he makes the guitar do the singing.

Foster showed her bluesier side when she returned to play a few songs with Ford. The two were already acquainted; Ford had contributed guitar on Foster’s new album, “The Truth According to Ruthie Foster.” That familiarity paid benefits when they jammed together on “Truth!” Foster then exited, leaving Ford and Kaukonen to move into electric guitar land. While Kaukonen had solid moments, it seems clear that his strength these days is on the acoustic side.




Which left the grand finale, as the three performers gathered onstage for a mini-tribute to Bob Dylan. The first song, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” was fine ” but in light of what followed, I doubt too many people had the song on their minds as they exited the Wheeler.

The night ended on a note of sublime brilliance when the trio returned for a take on Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Many artists, including Eric Clapton, Susan Tedeschi, Johnny Cash and Mike Ness of Social Distortion, have covered the folk-leaning, lament-filled song. Still, with Kaukonen and Foster trading verses, and Ford backing them not with lightning leads but with tasty, subdued licks, the song sounded new and worth savoring.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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