In the past, Josephine Foster tours have been personal, confessional affairs, but tonight’s show is all about the collaboration. Trembling Bells ringmaster Alex Neilson – officially the busiest man on the experimental psych-folk circuit – is behind the drum kit, wearing for most of the evening a headscarf that somehow gives him the odd, lithe look of a camp leopard. On guitar is Foster’s husband Victor Herrero, with bass and gleeful backing vocals from former Zwan/Silver Jews/Entrance violin pin-up Paz Lenchantin. With each band member hailing from a different country, it’s like an ultra-hip episode of Going For Gold.
International supergroup status aside, there is ramshackle edge to everything Foster (or JoFo, as Neilson has taken to calling her) does which acts as an effective counterpoint to her classically trained voice – her simply strummed acoustic guitar and Neilson’s free, sympathetic drumming provide a base from which melody and improvisation can grow simultaneously.
The bulk of material is taken from the recently released Blood Rushing. Blushing is a gentle introduction to Foster’s alter ego; Panorama Wide is an insistent, haunted self-affirmation with a wordless chorus that sounds like an elemental invocation; and in Child of God, she seems to have written a pop song almost by accident. Lenchantin’s input in particular gives the latter an irresistible, chugging momentum: if renaissance-fayre folk whimsy can have a grungy side, this is it. With the meandering Garden of Earthly Delights Foster delves into her back catalogue and her more abstract lyrical recesses. Geyser, the evening’s finale, gives Herrero a chance to indulge in some Velvet Underground guitar squall as the vocals swell and rush: it is a heady, disorienting and wonderful experience.
It’s twelve years since Foster’s debut solo album, and the new material is rightly being heralded as a career pinnacle, displaying maturity, focus and thematic coherence, whilst retaining a boundary-pushing, genre-muddling sensibility. Her live performances only serve to enhance this: one moment she is channelling the spirit of Hedy West, the next she is up to her neck in a krautrock jam, or a Hissing of Summer Lawns-era Joni Mitchell narrative, though never straying from the immersive, transformative nature of her material as a whole.
Afterwards, as the band pack up and drink wine, I corner the disarmingly friendly Paz Lenchantin to ask for a copy of the set list. As she takes a last look through the list of songs she seems confused, as if she can’t remember what she’s just played. It’s a telling moment – seemingly the mesmeric nature of tonight’s performance affected the musicians as much as it did the audience. I take the list – scrawled in blue highlighter – and hope I can decipher the handwriting when I am more sober and less excited.
Words: Tom Blake
Photography: Mel Hughes