Dammit, Jeffrey Foucault
I was still steaming a couple of songs into Jeffrey Foucault’s show at Steel City Coffeehouse in Phoenixville, PA Friday night. My wife had unexpectedly run late getting home, causing me to pace and stomp around and throw up my hands and ultimately leave the kids with the neighbors so I could rush down to the show.
But when Foucault quieted the room with the gorgeous love song off last year’s Salt as Wolves, “I Love You (And You Are a Fool),” all was forgotten. Like music can do, three minutes later, I was wishing that my fool was with me, because I love her. Suddenly it had all switched; I was the fool for letting myself get worked up.
Dammit, you got me, Foucault.
As a performer, Jeffrey Foucault has that enviable mix of great, unexpected songs and a warm and rugged stage presence that makes you feel alive and in awe all at once.
Foucault’s 12-song set, heavy with tunes from Wolves and a few standouts from his previous records, was part of a mini-run down the East Coast that he puts together from time to time. It’s a touring schedule Foucault has taken to as he navigates the challenges of being a touring-musician dad who still wants to be a dad.
“I don’t have any interest in going out on long tours—I used to—but childhood doesn’t last that long. I can already see the end of the point where my daughter really needs me to be there. I want to be home,” Foucault told me. “You get to a point where you realize if you don’t have a life worth writing about, why are you a writer?”
Shades of that challenge are evident in some of the best parts of Salt as Wolves, his most satisfying record to date. As last year’s reviews testified, it’s the record of a craftsman at the height of his powers. Settled but searching, confident enough to not say everything, but to say more instead.
One highlight of the record is the up-tempo “Slow Talker.” When they kicked into it early in the set with just Foucault’s old acoustic Gibson and Billy Conway’s minimalist drum kit, you wondered how they would possibly get the full-band roil the song requires.
Remarkably, the duo not only hit the tune perfectly, they took it higher—Foucault straining, pushing his voice and his guitar to build the rising chord progression, Conway driving the fills to propel it. It’s a great song, made even better by Foucault’s restraint in the writing. The tune takes you right up to what you think will be a rocking, let-go chorus, but makes you hang onto a plateau and listen instead. It’s the kind of control that makes writers jealous. Dammit, Foucault.
While the blues is his medium on Salt as Wolves, the thing that has lately separated Foucault is his turn of phrase, his ability to cut out what others would leave in, the ability to make you wonder a little bit—to actually expect a little more of the story than he gives you. It’s a quality that the best writers have, songwriter or other: the ability to leave you wanting a little more.
That want was part of the story of Friday night’s show. The only complaint was the show needed a few more songs to paint a more accurate picture of Foucault’s wide and excellent catalog.
There’s an enchanting intensity to Foucault’s singing and stagecraft. He’ll get red-faced hitting difficult notes and a little pissy while tuning his guitar, and then he’ll make you lean in to hear a brilliantly ragged tale.
In between songs with tight, unhurried blues riffs, and lyrics that are both concise and cinematic, he also tells great, stand-up quality road stories of panhandlers and depressing casino stays and merch-table woes that somehow make you wish you were a traveling, hustling singer-songwriter. Dammit, Foucault.
With that quality of songs and that intimate approach, to see him in a small room is a gift. As Conway stepped off for a couple of songs mid-set, Foucault unplugged and went mic-less for a few arresting moments, standing on the edge of the stage, almost out onto the cocktail tables, telling stories and bringing the place to a dead, reverent still.
In the midst of the quiet, just as the beautiful lament of the unrecorded song “Cheap Suit” had sucked the breath out of the small, newly refreshed and reopened coffeehouse, a middle-aged woman popped her head in the front door and asked, “what, no coffee tonight?”
Jeffrey Foucault never missed a note of the tune. He glanced over at the audience shooting daggers in coffee lady’s direction—we’re trying to be moved here, lady—and just gave her a big, charming grin. Dammit, Foucault.
An homage to his hero Guy Clark followed. Having Foucault cover Clark’s “Let Him Roll” was something akin to having somebody read you the funniest and saddest bedtime story you’ve ever been told.
And like Clark, he’s songwriter’s songwriter. He told a great story about once opening for Clark and stealing a Marlboro out of Clark’s bag when he was onstage. “Guy was great . . . and a little scary. And to be honest, I’m really only telling you this story because he’s dead,” he quipped.
The closing song (Foucault doesn’t do “encores,” go see him to hear why) was Salt as Wolves’ prettiest tune, “Hurricane Lamp.” After all the stories were told, the soaring refrain filled the room up to its tall ceilings, bounced off Steel City’s new fishline-hung decoration stars, and left you breathless and full.
As Foucault and Conway said goodnight, one of the girls up front urged for more music: “aw, come on . . . one more?” But you could tell it wasn’t a disappointed whine.
I heard her whisper to her girlfriend heading out, “. . . he even looks good in a hat.”