Ever since Ruthie Foster played the Vancouver Folk Festival in 2002, organizers have been talking about how her two live sets helped her shatter the festival CD sales record held by Ani DiFranco. Stages, a 14-track live set, finally delivers exactly what those fans were hoping to hear when they plunked down their cash for her studio CD after the show. The disc captures Foster's confident vocals -- trained in a tiny Baptist church near Gause, Texas -- in full flight at three sessions, which ranged geographically from Houston to Austin to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in settings ranging from a duo to a sextet. (The five local tracks were cut at Anderson Fair in February 2003.) Foster hits her stride behind the full orchestration in the Austin session (major props to pianist Will Taylor), especially in Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" and what is, to date, probably her songwriting zenith: the Steve Winwood-channeling "Full Circle." Fans who have caught a few Foster gigs will hear some well-worn, rehearsed stage banter, but there's nothing manufactured about her dynamic range and ability to sing gospel, blues or jazz arrangements with just the right timbre and, of course, her spine-tingling ability to hold a note.
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