“Did anyone see that speech Bob Dylan gave yesterday?”, MC Taylor asks, referring to a marathon thank you note the legendary songwriter delivered upon receiving a lifetime achievement award at a pre-Grammy bash.
“He said the problem with most modern bands is that they don’t play grooves. Well, we’re going to play some grooves for you tonight. Hard and sensitive.”
Alongside multi-instrumentalist Scott Hirsch (on bass duty tonight), Taylor is the mainstay of the North Carolina-based Hiss Golden Messenger collective. Within minutes, it’s clear his ethos is in line with Dylan when it comes to the vital importance of working up a robust groove. The slow-burning, majestic Brother, Do You Know The Road? that opens the set starts as an earthy folk hymn, but gradually escalates into a stately, crunching jam (with special starring role for the biting slide guitar of former Megafaun member Phil Cook, who opens the evening with a superb solo set) of Crazy Horse-ian proportions. Many in tonight’s audience may not be familiar with this relatively rare non-album cut, but the atmosphere at the end suggests that we not only know the exact location of said road, but would also quite happily follow Taylor and co. to wherever it may lead.
Mention of Dylan, a cover of Waylon Jennings’ Lonesome, On’ry and Mean, a tour T-shirt design that seems to tip a hat (almost certainly a Stetson) towards country-funk cult classic Larry Jon Wilson: Hiss Golden Messenger deliver distinctly, proudly rootsy American music, with an emphasis on fusing country/folk songcraft with a soul and funk-derived interest in the cleansing powers of the groove. Although the band doesn’t really sound like either, The Band and Little Feat are obvious forebears to the ensuing country-funk stew. They may not be reinventing the wheel but the intense build-ups and sheer funkiness that tonight’s triumphant set is charged with (there’s a big river of perspiration running down Taylor’s guitar well before the proceedings culminate with a rousing rendition of Southern Grammar that doesn’t so much raise the roof as catapult it way up into heavens), not to mention songs that sound simultaneously ancient enough have risen from the soil and thoroughly rooted in the here and now, separate Hiss Golden Messenger from hordes of tradition-bound Americana practitioners.
There’s a palpable joy in the delivery that’s deliciously at odds with the often troubled contents. In its original formation, Call It Daylight is a dark, brooding thing. Tonight, it’s saddled with an unstoppable groove that struts like a cockerel in a particularly self -assured mood. The spooky lamentation of Sufferer (Love My Conqueror) – dedicated to the late Magnolia Electric Co leader Jason Molina, as it was during Taylor’s solo set at the Brudenell last year – remains loaded with bruised hurt and end-of-times foreboding, but the relentless storm of noise the band (there’s little sense of individual showing off; the extensions and expansions are about showcasing just how many gears the collective sound can go up) cook up to replace the original’s complex, string-enhanced arrangement inject it with a promise that any and all obstacles will soon be overcome.
If that sounds like the musicians are suffering from a particularly bad case of the boogie flu, a solo rendition of the new albums spectral, hushed title track of last year’s breakthrough album Lateness of Dancers proves that Taylor’s songs are easily strong enough to stun without any added ingredients. The final encore of Drum takes the proceedings even deeper into folk tradition, as Taylor and the band sing unaccompanied on the floor, the boundary between the artist and the audience blurred as the song becomes a massed sing-a-long, as was (and is) the custom in old-school folk clubs.
Lateness of Dancers has finally – and deservedly – brought Taylor’s music closer to the mainstream after some 20 years on the fringes of the music business. Should the combo maintain its current levels of tight yet ragged intensity, Hiss Golden Messenger may yet find themselves from elevated from looking up to the greats to being counted amongst them. If there is a finer band working in the Americana idiom today, they’re other being cruelly sidelined and spectacularly good at hiding.
Gig date: February 8