in performance: radney foster

Radney Foster. Photo by Marshall Foster.

Two of the more telling moments from Radney Foster’s solo acoustic concert last night at Natasha’s came when he stripped a pair of original tunes that were hits for country star Keith Urban (Raining on Sunday and I’m In) down to elemental slices of folkish drama.

“This is the West Texas version,” said Foster before each song. And, true, the darker, starker treatments brought out a surprisingly rich Texas tenor in Foster’s singing, even when the vocals reached to treacherously high extremes during I’m In. Mostly, though, the performance illuminated considerable detail and color that sometimes gets buried on Foster’s recordings.

The veteran singer-songwriter’s newest album, Del Rio, Texas Revisited: Unplugged and Lonesome, presented a partial deconstruction of Foster’s music by retooling all of the songs from his 1992 solo debut album, Del Rio, Texas 1959 with bluegrass-leaning arrangements for small acoustic combos. Last night, without any band at all, the potency of Foster’s singing and writing beamed all the brighter.

Recast Del Rio works like the show-opening triad of Louisiana Blue, Don’t Say Goodbye and Just Call Me Lonesome underscored the transformation. A few outside inspirations – like 1973-era Jackson Browne and Kentucky’s own Dwight Yoakam – crept into the swagger of the latter two songs. But the heart of these tunes – and, indeed, of the entire performance – reflected an unadulterated country spirit that was seemingly unleashed.

Foster’s indie albums of the past decade promote him as more of an Americana songsmith. But last night’s program, which only sparingly touched upon those records, revealed what an expansive country soul lives within his songs, from the aged rodeo buck of Went for a Ride to the cowboys of Texas in 1880 (a gem from the singer’s days in the grand country duo Foster & Lloyd).

Perhaps what separated this music from so much of pop hokum that passes for country music today is that Foster favors story and characterization over cheap sentimentalism and audience pandering. A brilliant example last night was Angel Flight, a tune co-penned by fellow Texas scribe Darden Smith that outlined the final journey of fallen service men and women (“Come on, brother. I’m taking you home”).

Country artists have often bonded themselves in almost parasitic fashion to war and the military. Foster’s delivery of Angel Flight had none of that. Like the entire performance, it allowed a potent human story to unravel without patronizing excess. This was truly country with an honest, open, Texas-sized heart.

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