W-S’s rock-and-roll gentleman achieves ragged glory

by Jordan Green

A heavy downpour has deluged the Triad, dime-sized drops, and the Old Ceremony is over in Winston-Salem from Chapel Hill. The rain has stopped, so the place to be is on the sidewalk.

Jeffrey Dean Foster, the dean of singer-songwriters in Winston-Salem is greeting well-wishers and hanging out with drummer Brian Landrum outside the Garage. Later, after Foster and his band, the Birds of Prey, wrap up their set, two of the players from the Old Ceremony will be passing a Frisbee across 7th Street. “Our ambition often outstrips our time, so we’re never sure if we’re prepared,” Foster is saying. It was six months ago, Christmastime, when the Birds of Prey last played, which was here at the Garage. The previous year, they went eight month without playing, and Foster says he didn’t want to wait so long this time around. So, the Old Ceremony is opening tonight, and Foster’s band will be returning the favor the following night in Charlotte. Though the live shows are their own reward, Foster acknowledges that he’s been working on some new songs and the band has started recording again, though the new album — a follow-up to 2005’s masterful Million Star Hotel — has no unifying theme. On balance, the players in the Old Ceremony are young, and all of them are indisputably talented. The band has chemistry, passion and a sound that seems to have captured the public imagination. In this way, they’re somewhat like Foster’s first band in the 1980s, the Right Profile: on the cusp of great things. And maybe like Foster’s second and third bands: the Carneys and the Pinetops.

Despite the Old Ceremony’s irrepressible buoyancy, the listeners in the Garage’s full house are not a dancing crowd. Sara Bell, keyboardist and second guitarist in Foster’s band and front-woman in her own band Regina Hexaphone, tries to rectify that by shimmying along the side of the stage and then around the front before retreating to the side and taking her place. Dressed in a black T-shirt and mauve pants, Foster himself stands to the side of the stage and claps along with the Old Ceremony. He’s wearing a beard with a wide patch of gray on the chin these days, a jarring yet pleasing change from the youthful look he once possessed as a clean-shaven man. A long intermission allows the revelers to replenish at the bar, visit old friends and plunge into conversation. The Birds of Prey set their levels at a leisurely pace and then retreat to thedressing room. Later, Foster emerges dressed in a pinkand-whitecollared shirt and a black velvet jacket. Bass player Andy Mabe, whosered hair hangs to his shoulders, and looses an excited shriek.

Winston-Salemrock, country and pop stalwart Jeffrey Dean Foster (left) performedwith his band, the Birds of Prey, which includes bass player Andy Mabe,at the Garage on May15. (photos by Keith T. Barber)

They play mostly songs from Million Star Hotel, eschewingFoster’s catalogue from his days with the Pinetops and the Carneys, anda handful of new ones: “When You Break My Heart,” “The Girl With theRed Guitar and the Platform Shoes,” “Morningside” and “The Sun WillShine Again.” It’s great to hear them. The songs from Million Star Hotel, ahighly produced affair, sound particularly good played live. Foster andhis collaborators, despite his protestations, look relaxed, and thesongs have a loose and ragged feel. They open with “The Summer of theSon of Sam,” a nostalgic and apocalyptic gem, with Mabe singing backupvocals. It begins quietly and bursts into a thrummingpower-pop opus with ample buzzing electric guitar. Bell sings thefemale response to Foster’s “I feel your troubles….” completing thethought with, “I feel your troubles slipping away.” Then Fosterunleashes a run of slashing chords and concludes with a truncatedscreaming solo. Except for the sound of cicadas at the beginning andthe romping piano sequence at the end of the recorded song, the bandnails pretty much every other element live. Bell alternates betweenelectric guitar and keyboards, and then straps on a mandolin for abrief acoustic-tinged stretch. She has note cards dictating the chordchanges arrayed at her feet, and Foster has his own cheat sheet. EckiHeins, a violinist from Germany, joins the band before the halfway markand contributes some fine accompaniment to Foster’s frail tenor. For the last three songs, all from Million Star Hotel, Fosterswitches back from acoustic to electric guitar, ending with “EverythingYou Say Sounds Like Goodbye.” It sounds resplendent and rocking, andthen it explodes into a cathartic romp. The band stops in mid-charge,Foster bids the audience goodnight, and then the band resumes. “Thank you for coming out,” Foster says. “See you next time.”