From where I sat, the stage looked like a home away from home for the nomadic artists, and they looked like a family.
I arrived a little late at the Bootleg on Saturday night for Hiss Golden Messenger‘s show and opener Tift Merritt was already midway through her set. I could tell I had missed a captivating first half, though, when she went off-mic and acoustic for her last song and every ounce of attention in the building stayed magnetically glued to the stage. It was my first clue that this was going to be a special night.
The heart of Hiss Golden Messenger’s beautiful new record, Heart Like A Levee, is love. Specifically, what happens when the things you love keep you away from the people you love. And how to find connection even in times of isolation and exhaustion. They’re questions too big and difficult to really have answers, but the wisdom is in asking.
From the band’s first song, “As The Crow Flies,” an upbeat, bluesy tune about life on the road and longing for home (“sing little bird, sing for high summer / don’t get down, you’re nothin’ but a number”) frontman M.C. Taylor carried that rich complexity with him to the stage.
After bringing Tift Merritt back up to lend her lovely voice to cuts from Heart Like A Levee, the group moved into some material from HGM’s last album, The Lateness Of Dancers.
As Taylor noted, some of the band’s members have been playing together for over 20 years – and it shows. The five piece band has the kind of intimate chemistry and precision that only comes from years of learning each other’s musical quirks and cues. It probably also doesn’t hurt that all of them are incredibly multi-talented musicians; almost everyone took up multiple instruments throughout the set. Phil Cook, HGM’s keyboardist (also of Megafaun), was an especially impressive presence – his keyboard solos were a highlight of the show.
Towards the middle of the set, Taylor gave a special shout-out to his wife, who had flown in from North Carolina for the show. “Which meant she had to find a babysitter for, like, three nights. It takes a special kind of mettle to do that.” Then he paused and asked, “How many of you had to find a babysitter for tonight?” Several hands went up. “You’re my people,” he said, before launching into a touching performance of “Newborn Child,” which he dedicated to his wife. The moment illuminated a mundane-but-tender reality of career musicians that is too often overlooked.
As the lively set wound down with the folksy blues of “Cracked Windshield” and barn dance stomper “Southern Grammar” (two of my favorites from the night) it was evident that at least part of the answer to M.C. Taylor’s tough questions was on stage with him. The band’s love for their craft and for each other could be sensed in a familial stage presence so strong and inclusive that it rippled through the whole room. From where I sat, the stage looked like a home away from home for the nomadic artists, and they looked like a family.
Unusually, Taylor did not come back out for an encore after the band’s last song, “John The Gun” (and it was not for lack of applause). Though I would have loved to hear more, I like to imagine that he just really wanted to go see his wife.
Set List //