M.C. Taylor, the songwriter who performs as Hiss Golden Messenger, described himself as an introvert during his two-hour show at One Longfellow Square in Portland, Maine last night. As such, he said, he never really enjoyed sing-a-longs. But he asked us to close the night by coming down onto the floor, circling up the crowd, and leading a sometimes soft, sometimes stomping version of “Drum”. It’s the final song on both Bad Debt (2010), which Taylor recorded at his kitchen table in North Carolina, as well as the group’s most recent album, Lateness of Dancers (2014). “I’ll beat my drum, everybody to come running. / Yes, and I’ll beat my drum all the day / Well it’s all rise, all rise / All rise in the morning. / Take the good news; carry it away / Yes, take the good news; spirit it away.” I drove home to Boston from Portland thinking a lot about that song.
The version on Bad Debt is quiet and hopeful and it’s more joyous on Lateness of Dancers–one aspect of Hiss Golden Messenger that is interesting to me is that there are many, many iterations of this group. HGM started as a collaboration between Taylor and Scott Hirsch, but HGM is sometimes a solo act, a duo, or a sprawling family of musicians, including Phil Cook, Brad Cook, Matt McMaughan, William Tyler, and many others. (There are four different HGM shows on the wonderful live concert site nyctaper.com and each show features a unique lineup.) When HGM released this video of “Day O Day (A Love So Free)” with Sara Watkins and The Lone Bellow, my first response wasn’t that they were distinct bands collaborating on a song, but rather that the Hiss Golden Messenger family got a bit bigger for the night.
Taylor opened the show last night with “Call Him Daylight,” the opening number for almost every HGM show. At One Longfellow, Taylor played a soft rhythm, with a search, exploratory tone to the vocals: “When my ship comes in, when my ship comes in, when my ship comes in, I’m gonna lose control.” (HGM also opened their set at Newport a few weeks ago and these same lines were challenging and assertive, punctuated and driven by Matt McMaughan’s percussion.) “I Got A Name For The Newborn Child” followed, a bright song written prior to his son’s birth, and then a finger-picked version of “Lucia,” the first tune on Lateness of Dancers. In the middle of his first set, Taylor played “Sufferer (Love My Conqueror)” followed by a cover of Jason Molina’s “What Comes After The Blues?” Taylor said he thinks of Molina when he plays “Sufferer” because of Molina’s struggle with addiction. The pairing of songs was just beautiful. The highlight of the first set for me was “What Shall Be (Shall Be Enough)” from Haw (2013). He mentioned that he hasn’t played it in a few years–the simplicity of the refrain is powerful and it evokes, without replicating, the music and folklore that Taylor has studied extensively and supported through his production of Alice Gerrard’s Grammy-nominated album Follow The Music (2014). “This is very casual, isn’t it?” Taylor asked the crowd at OLS. He made it so. During the set break, he hung out near the bar and chatted with fans and old friends.
The second set was just one stunning performance after another, beginning with “Jesus Shot Me in the Head,” “O Little Light,” and one of my favorite HGM songs, “The Serpent is Kind (Compared to Man)”. Taylor sings: “I put my hand in the red dirt land / I worked the land that my father tread / He said, “Don’t be afraid when the snake is at hand. / The serpent is kind, compared to man.” / Hard by design / Hard times are just a drop of rain / Let the rain come down. / Behind, behind runs the sun.” As with so many of his lyrics, they have a surface simplicity that is inviting, and a depth that keeps me coming back and thinking of them in new ways. The second set also featured two more covers: “Into the Mystic” and one of my favorite Townes Van Zandt songs, “Loretta.” Before coming down onto the floor for “Drum,” Taylor played “Southern Grammar,” the song he and the band played on Letterman last spring. This song had just as much intensity–maybe even more so–in its stripped-down performance as with the full band.
This was Hiss Golden Messenger’s first show in Maine and it was the perfect room for the performance. The audience was so quiet and attentive. People lingered afterward, chatting together, thanking Taylor, helping clean up–I got the feeling no one wanted to go home.