Radney Foster at the Indy Acoustic Cafe (Indianapolis, IN – Feb 21, 2015)
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Radney Foster took the stage at the Wheeler Center for the Arts to riotous applause here Saturday night, and then spent the first minute of the show tuning his vintage Gibson acoustic while explaining that the near-zero temperatures experienced travelling between Champaign, IL (where he played the night before) and Indianapolis were playing havoc with his ability to stay in tune. The delay only heightened anticipation, as Foster’s first visit to the nearly 20 years running Indy Acoustic Café Series had been sold out well in advance.
Eventually the Gibson complied, and Foster, accompanied by the exemplary Eddie Heinzelman on acoustic guitar and harmony vocals, spent the next two hours and 20 minutes mining much of the best and most noteworthy of his back catalog, interspersed with eight songs from his latest recording, Everything I Should Have Said. As is true of many of the best songwriters, Foster is a skilled storyteller, and he lent the audience his insight into the inspiration behind many of his best loved songs, and some of his new songs as well. In one such instance Foster recalled, as if it were a century ago, that in the days of cassette tapes and cassette players, you’d make tapes of favorite songs for yourself, your friends, your girlfriend, and that Keith Urban had made such a “mixtape” of some of his favorite songs for one Nicole Kidman, including Radney’s “West Texas” version of “I’m In”. After hearing it, Kidman pronounced the song “sexy” and encouraged Urban to record it. Subsequently, it became one of Urban’s best-known recordings. After a beat, Foster noted, “So now I’m trying to figure out how to pitch songs to Nicole Kidman”.
Another between-songs moment related the backstory for the song “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams),” when Foster and his then-wife divorced. She eventually re-married and moved to France, taking their son, age 5, with her. Foster wrote the song for his son to have as a remembrance, recording it on a cassette five times over, so that he could play it in his Fisher Price Big Button cassette player. Foster never intended to record it for the public, but was later persuaded to do so after his manager heard it, and insisted it was one of the best songs he’d ever written. A few years later, the Dixie Chicks cut it for their record Home, and it was released as the fourth of five hit singles from that album. Foster then noted that it has become one of “those songs” where people contact him to tell him how much it means to them personally.
He also mentioned the time when a young man with a “high and tight” haircut approached him at a concert once and told him that he had just returned from a year and a half in Iraq, and every time he talked to his kids on the phone, he would sing them that song. It was an emotional touchstone for a young man who had been away from home and family too long, and for a songwriter who had tapped into something greater than the sorrow and pain of his personal situation.
Storytelling and banter aside, Radney Foster is indeed one of country music’s finest songwriters and artists, and his passionate delivery of the standards in his catalog — “Just Call Me Lonesome”, “Louisiana Blue”, “Nobody Wins,” “I’m In” — make one a bit in awe of how easy he makes it seem.
He noted that he and Alice Randall, with whom he co-wrote “Went for a Ride,” were big history buffs, before relating the tale of the former slave who joined the Buffalo Soldiers after the Civil War and learned to rodeo so well that he toured the world with Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley, and received medals from the Queen of England and Napoleon. All this, only to find that rodeo was a “young man’s game,” foretelling his eventual return to Nashville to become a Pullman Porter and carry bags for “rich white folks” who had no idea of what he’d seen in his life. When Foster sings the line “And they got it all wrong in that book of history,” his ability to convey the social injustice of the era, through the immediacy of his vocal delivery, is palpable and real. This guy means every word he sings, and he makes every word count.
As mentioned earlier, Foster performed several new songs, and truth be told, pretty much every one of those held its own with his better known material. Highlights for me personally were the lovely “California,” inspired by a conversation with his wife (who is a native), where she noted that “everyone ‘out here’ is crazy since the Gold Rush days,” either running from something or trying to get rich or have a fresh start. Another impassioned performance was “Not In My House,” where Foster related the story of his then 11-year-old daughter coming home from school after hearing a classmate defame another student, and not knowing what the word she heard meant, but understanding by context alone that it was a “bad” word. The lyric mourns the loss of a child’s innocence, and the intensity of a father’s anger at the damage words alone can do. It’s an anthem against intolerance, if you will.
The sexy swagger of “Unh, Unh, Unh,” which Foster mentioned was written partly as an exercise to use the word “monosyllabic” in a song, is a hit record in waiting. “Lie About Loving Me”, “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode to the Muse),” and “The Man You Want” were also exceptional. Another song deserving of mention was the lovely “Angel Flight,” a song from an earlier CD Revival. Written with a frequent songwriting partner and fellow Texan Darden Smith, the song is a moving tribute to courageous pilots who fly their fallen military brethren from combat zones to their final resting place.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the guitar work and sweet vocal harmonies of sideman extraordinaire Eddie Heinzelman. Heinzelman is that rare guitar player who adds mostly color and accent to songs. Although his playing doesn’t necessarily sound like David Lindley (who is playing the Acoustic Café Series May 2), his ability to play notes that matter makes him the ultimate team player and complimentary sideman, and remind me of Lindley’s best work on Jackson Browne’s early records. Heinzelman’s high harmony vocals were the excellent counterpoint to Foster’s lead. Apparently he’s a heck of a mandolin player too, but he didn’t bring one along for this show. He’s a pro in every way, and an engaging fellow besides. He made the rounds of the crowd before the show, shaking hands and thanking people for coming out. Near the end of the show, Heinzelman stepped into the solo on “Texas In 1880” and showed that he is truly one of the “Nashville Cats,” playing with speed and dexterity reminiscent of an Albert Lee or Vince Gill.
If you have the opportunity to see Radney Foster in concert, you certainly have this writer’s recommendation to attend. As noted earlier, the Acoustic Café Series has been in existence for nearly 20 years (thanks to devoted steward Mark Butterfield and his crew), and has played host to artists such as Ellis Paul, David Wilcox, Darden Smith, David Lindley, Eric Andersen, Karla Bonoff, Lowen and Navarro, Rory Block, Paul Thorn, Paul Barrerre and Fred Tackett, John Gorka, Beth Neilsen Chapman, Shawn Mullins, Christine Lavin, Lynn Miles, Catie Curtiss, Eliza Gilkyson, Nicholas Barron, Jeff Black, Chris Trapper, Brooks Williams, and many more (see www.IndyAcousticCafeSeries.com for the complete roster of artists). As someone who has attended most of those shows, it is my informed opinion that Radney Foster put on one of the best shows ever performed in the series. Preceding his final encore, Foster told the standing audience, “We’ll come back and play for y’all again anytime”. One can certainly hope so.
Disclaimer: I, in no way, benefit monetarily or otherwise, from the Indy Acoustic Café Series. While I have become acquainted with the series director, Mark Butterfield, over the years, I buy tickets for every event. I simply write this review in appreciation for the performance given by Mr. Foster last Saturday night, and in gratitude to Mark, Dan the sound man, and the rest of the Series crew who have assisted in bringing the best acoustic musicians in the world to Indianapolis for 20 years running.