The only thing missing at the Napa Valley Opera House Wednesday night was the tent.
Billed as the “Soul Salvation” tour, the co-headlining lineup of Ruthie Foster and Paul Thorn brought the fervor of a religious revival, with a decidedly temporal bent, to the gathered congregation.
Both Thorn and Foster have early backgrounds that include heavy doses of religion—Thorn’s father was a Pentecostal preacher; Foster sang in and played piano for her church choir. Take those gospel influences, mix with equal parts of blues and soul, and you get an energetic and entertaining performance with somewhat different approaches.
Thorn can rock when backed by his touring band, but when performing acoustically, his regular guy, southern-accented attitude with some “aw, shucks” self-depreciating humor allows the listener to focus on the humor, love and pathos in his writing. His self-introduction, “Hi, I’m Paul Thorn and I’m gonna play some songs I made up,” set the tone for a wide array of song subjects.
He opened with “I’m Still Here,” giving thanks for making it through another day’s often bizarre trials and tribulations. The song “I Don’t Like Half The Folks I Love” said what many of us feel, but are afraid to say, about extended family—”I like it when they come, but I love it when they go.” Thorn told the story of “Joanie, the Jehovah Witness Stripper,” who was a good girl at heart just trying to make ends meet.
Death and destruction played roles in Thorn’s gospel revival: the touching “I Have A Good Day (Every Now And Then)” was prompted by the suicide of a friend, and Thorn promised “I’ve got a can of gas and I’m a dangerous man” to an unfaithful wife in “Burn Down The Trailer Park.” He paid tribute to his mother, who lived in the shadow of his preacher father for so many years, with the song “That’s Life,” stringing together different phrases she used throughout her life. Then, channeling his father, Thorn promised the crowd “If you don’t buy my CDs, you’ll go to hell,” before closing with “Everybody Looks Good At The Starting Line,” a tune about those good intentions we all have.
Ruthie Foster came to celebrate. She was genuine, warm and energetic, and her gospel roots inhabited every song. Although Foster was honored by the Blues Foundation last year as Best Contemporary Female Blues artist, she effortlessly blurs musical lines of Mississippi blues, Texas roots, Memphis soul, Cajun funk and Southern gospel. It’s an infectious mix that just exudes energy.
Her band took the stage one by one—Tanya Richardson on bass, Samantha Banks on drums and Scottie Miller on keyboards—slowly working into a slower, jazz-infused version of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had A Hammer,” one of the songs from her recently released album Let It Burn. The band changed instruments, with Richardson on violin, Banks on a wood block and spoons and Miller on the mandolin, to brilliantly cover Mississippi John Hurt’s “Richmond Women’s Blues.” They went a cappella to perform “The Titanic,” on which Foster is backed on her new album by the Blind Boys of Alabama. (The foursome on stage did a magical job, so much so that Foster beamed, “We get the Blind Boys with us on that and woo, we have church!”)
The energy began to build as Foster belted out what may be her signature tune, “Phenomenal Woman.” With the immediate standing ovation, the night could have ended right there, but she then went solo a cappella with the Son House song, “Grinnin’ In Your Face.” A slow-cooking “Real Love” followed, and the band closed with an extended version of the traditional “Death Came A’Knockin’.” Lyrically a generally morbid song, it was transformed into a lengthy upbeat jam, giving each of the musicians some quality solo time.
Thorn joined Foster and the band for two encores. With everyone on their feet, they did Fosters’ “I Hear Music In The Air” and closed with a new Thorn song, “Take My Love With You,” both high-energy, gospel-swaying, hand-clapping crowd pleasers.
With the spirit in the building, it’s a good thing they’ve renovated and strengthened the rafters of the Napa Valley Opera House. And at that point, if your soul wasn’t saved, well… maybe you just weren’t listening.
As soon as I got to EarleFest, I ran into about five people who were still glossy-eyed over Chuck Prophet. “Wasn’t he great?” they asked me. “I had to work. Just got here,” I replied. “Man, you missed something special,” they said.
Of course, Chuck Prophet is fantastic, and talking with him recently about the record he recorded in Mexico City and its subtle comments on immigration confirmed my fandom. Seeing the Flatlanders, below, is always a treat, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s voice is a salve to be taken at least thrice a year for proper emotional maintenance.
But I was at EarleFest mostly to right two wrongs, namely that 1) I’d never been to EarleFest, and 2) I’d never seen Paul Thorn.
Well, the rumors are true on both points. EarleFest is a tremendously well-run festival in a perfect setting. There’s not a bad seat in the field, and there’s plenty of room to move if you want to dance, move closer to the stage or do cartwheels with 10-year olds. The sound is great, especially for a temporary outdoor system. Food booths are decent—paella, barbeque, fried pickles, beer and wine—and plenty of bathrooms. It’s just that perfect blend of “official” and “casual” that feels right.
How I’ve managed to miss Paul Thorn all these years is beyond me—”he’s so funny,” everyone says. They’re right. I was in stitches while he talked, but it’s hard to convey his humor in writing. Self-deprecating and clever, his between-song banter is that of a guy playing dumb but holding his smarts close to his chest. A sample, somewhat verbatim:
“My first album was all songs I wrote to try and win back a girl who broke up with me because I cheated on her. The story is as simple as that. When the album came out, I thought she would hear the songs and be so overcome that she’d run back to me. But instead of winning her back, they only gave her more power to treat me like dirt. And that’s what she did, for a long time. So here’s a very beautiful song that accomplished nothing.”
Thorn’s voice is rough and blues-inflected, sliding from note to note in a Mississippi drawl, his band is tight as hell and his tunes are great; about four or five of them fall into the “instant classics” category—like “I Don’t Want to Know,” “Everybody Looks Good at the Starting Line” and “Resurrection Day,” the aforementioned song that accomplished nothing. Anyway, if you’re like me and haven’t gotten around to seeing him yet, block out the calendar and plonk down for tickets. He’s good on record, particularly Mission Temple Fireworks Stand, but man, he’s outstanding live. In the middle of his last encore, he hopped off stage, danced with a few pretty girls, high-fived a throng of fans and waltzed back to the merch stand to hang out and chat with people while the sun went down. A nice end to a fantastic EarleFest.