There are unexpected downsides to hitting a bulls eye in the studio.
Last time MC Taylor – the North Carolina-based songwriter operating under the Hiss Golden Messenger banner with a rotating cast of collaborators that usually, including tonight, features bassist Scott Hirsch and guitarist/keyboardist Phil Cook of Megafaun fame – brought a full band to the Brudenell, their muscular yet nimble gift for the groove elevated the already fine material to a considerably higher plane.
Tonight, the music is every bit as vibrant, if not more so. However, there are places where you end longing for the soul-influenced elements – the urgent horn stabs of Tell Her I’m Just Dancing, Tift Merritt’s wounded harmonies on Happy Day – that turn new album Heart Like A Levee into such an unforgettable culmination of everything Taylor has been striving for in terms of songwriting, themes and presentation since HGM’s 2009 debut Country Hai East Cotton, but which would be financially ruinous to reproduce on tour for an act who is only just beginning to find an audience that matches the scale of his talent following earlier, unsuccessful stints in hardcore punk band Ex-Ignota and lavish country-rockers The Court & Spark.
Such reservations are down to the chill-inducing beauty and alluring depths of Heart Like A Levee, one of the year’s finest records that anyone with even a minor interest in the great American songwriting tradition should pick up immediately, rather than any faults with tonight’s show.
During one of the engaging bits of banter that pepper the generous two-hour set, Taylor describes a super-fan who had made an arduous journey to one of HGM’s shows in Canada, only to proceed to celebrate the occasion so fiercely it’s unlikely he’ll remember a note played that night; “he flew too close to the sun”, Cook quips. If tonight’s proceedings are anything to go by, the alcohol-afflicted Icarus missed a real treat.
An all-consuming passion for music turning into a job to pay the bills, a long-overdue success leading into ever-increasing absences from family life: the bitter-sweet themes of Heart Like A Levee might in places suggest that playing music for a living brings more than its fair share of stress and strife. The joyous noise and seemingly endless reserves of energy and, for want of a less corny phrase, good vibes (especially once Taylor lures the audience to a singalong during the new album’s gospel-tinged title track) emitting from the stage prove that Taylor and co. are far from ground down and disillusioned by the tireless touring.
The ballads are treated with all due care and respect; a sparkling, fleshed-out take on John The Gun from Vestapol, the sparse companion album to Heart Like A Levee, in particular suggests that HGM should release a live album straight away, as the studio versions don’t always manage to do justice to the potential of the material.
The more upbeat cuts are given an almighty kick up the backside. Relatively conventional, laidback country-rock in its original form, Saturday’s Song builds up a relaxed yet firmly insistent groove that’s broad enough to land a jet on.
The heat-hazed pair As The Crow Flies and Like A Mirror Loves A Hammer show just what an in-depth understanding of the Country-Funk idiom the five-piece have managed to pick up during their travels. At first, the decision to place a guitarist the calibre of Phil Cook behind the keyboards seems perverse, but Ryan Gustafson (moonlighting from the Dead Tongues) proves an equally compelling fretboard-wrestler; his intricate solos on the likes of Mahogany Dread frequently stretch the material to treacherous jamming territory, but there’s rarely a whiff of aimless noodling to the proceedings.
By the main set closing Southern Grammar, Hiss Golden Messenger have picked up such a momentum you’d half expect the band to levitate. The unhurriedly evolving, timeless country-folk stylings of the curfew-busting encore Brother, Do You Know The Road prove the perfect way to unwind. If the band had their way, you’d guess the song was still going on. As it probably is, in some other lucky town.