Thursday, June 6, 2002
Photo: Singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault learned his craft first from his dad, and then from guys like Chris Smither and Greg Brown.
The best live music can sound as easy as a conversation over beers with a good friend. There''s no divide between performer and listener; both are participants. That''s the kind of concert delivered by Jeffrey Foucault, the 26-year-old, Wisconsin-born singer-songwriter who made his first Monterey appearance in February.
That performance, with a relatively mellow (but still spirited) crowd at Ocean Thunder, was something of a triumph for Foucault. OT, where the habitues are more accustomed to talking over the louder sounds of rock and blues, seemed an unlikely venue for a singer-songwriter. And it was a noisy crowd, with one guy who persistently needed to shout out his observations and suggestions. Foucault handled the distractions like a pro. The fact that he was able to quiet the crowd, to command more than one moment of near silence, was a testimony to the power of his performance. He wasn''t performing pretty, sincere songs for polite, hands-folded-in-their-laps, white-wine folkies. It was a strong enough performance to earn Foucault a return engagement this Monday.
While OT''s is different from the types of places that singer-songwriters usually play, it wasn''t the first time Foucault''s been in similar surroundings.
"The type of listening room you tend to play is quite different from that, it tends to be more tame," he says. "But when I was in college, there was a venue in Whitewater, where my family lives, and I used to go there.
"Apparently the guy didn''t know anything about music because he overpaid me $100 to sit in the corner and play while the people played darts and drank."
Performing in places where there are more distractions for audiences forces a musician to work a little bit harder to connect with his audience.
"Everything you need to know as a musician you learn in the venues where you play," Foucault says. "I spent enough time around drunk people to be relatively humble when people are drunk. It''s fun. The best room, even when it tends to the obnoxious, is when people are on the same page with you and are willing to interact."
One of the songs that got the most audience response at OT was "Secretariat," a song that details the things Foucault''s looking for in a woman:
"I need a woman with a heel like Achilles/So I know there''s always one way I can win...I need a woman with a chin like old Joe Frazier/Who can stand inside when I''m swinging at the wind/Let''s you and me take the gloves off darling/And I''ll tell you exactly where I''ve been/ ''Cause I am the blue-eyed son of a hurricane/Twirl you so sweetly around..."
Foucault''s ability to make his music seem like an intimate act of communication stems at least partly from his earliest experiences in learning to play. His father played guitar and, when Foucault was still a kid, his dad brought home an old guitar, set on teaching the kid how to play. Somehow, though, it didn''t quite work out, and it wasn''t until Foucault was 17 that he again picked up the guitar.
"It was a piece of communication between my dad and me," he says. "We couldn''t really talk about a lot of things when I was 17. But when he was in the living room playing the guitar I''d be there listening to him."
Foucault says he also learned at Cafe Carpe in Madison, Wisc., a small joint where the party starts at closing time, when the musicians and select patrons retire to the back room. Foucault says he met many performers from "the rumpled peerage of the folk scene" at Cafe Carpe, including Chris Smither and Greg Brown, both of whose influences are clearly audible in Foucault''s music.
But Foucault''s success as a songwriter probably springs more directly from his dedication to the written word. He confesses to spending more time trying to write great songs than he does trying to polish his guitar work.
"I think that when you''re dealing with language, sometimes in the folksinger crowd you get this feeling that you have to be a political activist or something. But the greatest writing talks about what it means to be a human being. If it succeeds, like any great art, it succeeds on its own merits.
"If you read Faulkner''s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, he says something to the effect that great writers speak of the conflict the heart has with the heart."
When Foucault returns to the Ocean Thunder on Monday, that conflict will come across less as an internal meditation than as a heart-to-heart conversation between Foucault and the audience.