A typically warm welcome at Camden’s Green Note on a strangely mild February day for Jeffrey Foucault and his support for the evening, Sugar Magnolia. The gig’s been sold out for some time, presenting Foucault with the opportunity for an afternoon matinee because of the demand. The evening performance is the last of a short UK tour with his sidekick and suitcase drum-kit player Billy Conway. There’s no new album yet, that’s scheduled for later this year, but opportunities to see him in the UK are rare, so it might be Sunday, but that’s quickly forgotten as the club fills up.
First to the stage is Sugar Magnolia. I last saw Jack Day and Bryony Afferson at the (now sadly closed) Denmark Street offices of the 12 Bar Club. They were great that night so it’s a welcome bonus to listen again to their take on modern folk. A quick look between them and Jack’s foot begins tapping out the rhythm on the wooden floor, counting his finger-picked melodies and Bryony’s attractive Northern-timbre in. Second song Gravity is an early example of the way their highly distinct but complimentary voices blend together – Jack’s dark smoky rasp underpinning his partner’s keening harmony on a song with a nice dropped middle eight and the memorable couplet ‘I believe in something better / I believe in something stronger’.
Claypipe, one of four songs from a demo available on Soundcloud, works their ability to add light and shade to the dynamic of the song, voices rising and falling with the guitar, expanding and contracting across the room and back. Something clearly tickles Bryony on 3000 Miles – it turns out she hadn’t yet explored the meaning of some of its lyrics and Jack is quick to make it clear afterwards they’re exactly as she’s interpreted them – true professional, she makes it to the song’s conclusion without laughing into the mic. They finish with another from the demo’s, North London Country, the lyric sung slightly behind the beat and exposing a touch of the Barnsley accent in Bryony’s articulation of ‘darling’. They’re tighter tonight than they were at 12 Bar and the performance leaner and more direct. Definitely a ‘one to watch’ collaboration.
Jeffrey Foucault has the coolest hat in Green Note, probably in London, tonight. He sets up with Conway, their seats looking sideways out of the stage instead of towards the bar. Foucault sports acoustic and electric guitars, the latter a travel size. A burnished slide and single-shot of bourbon are his only accessories. Conway’s drums are a delight. The kick drum is an old tan suitcase, his hi-hat is at floor level and the snare includes a conga rim that both dampens the crack and offers various alternative moods depending upon the song. He’ll use this unorthodox travelling set tonight to provide every possible dynamic to propel Foucault’s gritty stories to their destination. Together, Foucault and Conway look like they’ve been in situ for about 30 years and the stage and instruments are placed around them when necessary – rarely have I seen two people so comfortable on stage.
Everybody’s Famous is a levelling opener – ‘Everybody’s famous, ‘cos everyone’s the same’ – an intentional gambit at inclusiveness perhaps. Jesus is a dirty blues with some great guitar. Conway supports with solid beats and brushed snare; Foucault spoke recently about how in sync he and Conway are and all the signs are there in the regular eye contact, perfect timing and relaxed approach to song endings, often winding down to nothing on the splash of a cymbal or arpeggiated chord.
With songs this good, artist to crowd banter isn’t as important, though the ratio begins to improve as the origin of Des Moines is explained – ‘I played an almost perfect show in Des Moines. To an almost empty bar’. As inspiration goes, if Foucault comes up with lines like ‘The heat from the asphalt, it was liquid and dancing’ as a result, he should play a few more empty bars.
Although he’s not known for being open about the source of his songs, both Des Moines and its follow up Slow Talker are clues to the often ridiculous nature of touring and performing, the latter’s trigger a promotional gig in the car park of an oil refinery for an audience more interested in the buffet. If there’s a point, it might be that you don’t always want, or need, to know the reason why a song is written. Sit back and listen, Foucault appears to be saying; salutary advice from such a good songwriter, someone who lives and breathes every song, cradling his guitar as if letting go of it would render him mute. Conway, meanwhile, is laid back, smiling and offering the occasional sarcastic response to his friend’s affectionate digs.
A brilliant Northbound 35 and a storming cover of Rev’d Gary Davis’s There’s Destruction In That Land whip some fervour up prior to the home straight, which kicks off with the excellent Ghost Repeater – ‘All the drunks are dressed up like Santa Claus’ – a fast and aggressive version that eclipses the measured delivery on the album. Personal highlight Heart To The Husk is beautiful, Conway using his hands on the snare, tapping out the heart(beat) to Foucault’s husk. They close with Hurricane Lamp and the Green Note wishes they didn’t have a plane to catch. Watch out for his new album Salt As Wolves; if he tours, don’t miss it.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
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