From the first notes out of her mouth, Ruby Amanfu makes it perfectly clear why everyone from Jack White to Weezer wants to sing with her. Quite simply, she’s one of the most elegant singers and souls you’ll ever encounter. And she pours herself into every single note of every single song. Such is the case on her new album, Standing Still, which was just released on Friday; and such was the case last night at the High Watt in Nashville. Both feature Amanfu remaking songs by everyone from Woody Guthrie to Erika Wennerstrom to Kanye West in her own glorious image.
Amanfu opened the set as she does her album… with a showstopper — “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand),” which was made famous by Irma Thomas. On the album, the piece is divine. Live, it was absolutely transcendent. It was the unintended equivalent of Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.” Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Where You Going” followed. Taking it from its bluesy folk roots, Amanfu put a slinky, steel-laced R&B spin on it that allowed space for both the rhythm and the blues.
Backed by Steelism’s Jeremy Fetzer and Spencer Cullum Jr., guitarist Alex Levy, drummer Jon Radford, and others, Amanfu added her smoky soul to Richard Hawley’s “As the Dawn Breaks,” Brandi Carlile’s “Shadow on the Wall,” and Kanye West’s “Street Lights.” (Let’s face it: If you have to listen to a Kanye West song, this is the way to do it.) In another ode to Jeff Buckley, Amanfu and Fetzer laid down Jump Little Children’s captivating “Cathedrals” in the same sparse manner that Buckley applied to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Amanfu’s renderings of Woody Guthrie/Wilco’s “One by One” and Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” kept fairly close to the originals, although her voice added an unquantifiable allure. The final two songs — her own “I Tried” and the Heartless Bastards’ “Out at Sea” — closed the show and left the audience wanting more. Anticipating as much, Amanfu suggested they could listen to the record on their way home. As stunning as the record is, Amanfu’s magnetism and magnificence are impossible to capture or convey. They must be experienced first-hand.