Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Hiss Golden Messenger Manchester Deaf Institute 10th February 2015 9/10

Hiss Golden Messenger's previous albums have found themselves near the top of my album of the year lists, so I was excited for this date at my favourite small local venue. My last experience of MC Taylor took place at a festival in a tiny pub in Salford, which became an intimate, unplugged performance when the venue's power failed. Last night's show was certainly not a genteel folk affair though: afterwards descriptions such as 'utterly ferocious' and 'tore up the venue' appeared on Twitter. HGM's line-up is known for rotating personnel, and this time Taylor was joined by three long time collaborators, giving a feeling of communion. It was a joy to watch the facial expressions of drummer Kyle Keegan from Lost in the Trees, who seemed to be completely lost in the groove. Phil Cook opened with a bluesy solo set, notable for virtuoso slide guitar work, being joined by the rest of the band for his closing number.  He also contributed idiomatic electric piano to the 80 minute main act. Long time collaborator Scott Hirsch, who co-founded Taylor's previous folk band The Settlers in 2007, completed the line-up.

Yet, to explain why HGM confounded expectations, progressing beyond their studio style, you need to go back even further. The young Taylor's love of hip hop accounts for their incredibly hard hitting, tight and punchy sound in Manchester. Significantly too, he played in the hardcore punk band Ex-Ignota with Hirsch. After that, the discovery of his father's record collection led him in an outwardly more country direction, but the 40 year old who recorded Bad Debt over the kitchen table to avoid waking his baby didn't lose his love of rhythm. Taylor's husky voice sounds warm, honest and natural; a key to my emotional connection with the albums. Yet, last night, the collective not personal came to the fore. I found myself getting gloriously lost in the extended instrumental sections, and it was difficult to forget Taylor's description of The Grateful Dead as 'the holy grail of music'.

The North Carolina band ranged widely through their back catalogue, whilst acknowledging the release of their Southern Grammar EP in the past week. Their live rendition of the title track from this EP gives a hint of their electricity on stage, sounding so much more electric than the album version. We were also treated to a cover of James Taylors' Angry Blues, which Taylor explained was an important early influence. Despite their impact and volume, the band gave the music room to breathe, and more serene numbers such as He Wrote the Book, also from that latest EP, were affecting.  The predominant emotion throughout was one of joy, and the band were clearly having immense fun, casting aside tiredness and separation from their children during a lengthy tour. This reflects the more upbeat tone of Lateness of Dancers, their first release on Merge Records and their most accessible album yet. As one review noted:  'it manages to feel like a series of late-night hangs, backyard barbecues, bleary-eyed mornings and very deep conversations,'

It's impossible to ignore the religious imagery in HGM's lyrics and the gospel influence in the music: even the band's title has biblical overtones. Taylor himself explained: 'My music is deeply spiritual, and it’s critical to me to work this stuff out in my music, but I’m not a believer, not in the usual Christian sense of the word and certainly not in terms of proselytizing.' Taylor has a masters degree in folklore, and his interest in mysticism forms part of a wider perspective on how cultures have attempted to relate to a higher power. A willingness to engage with spirituality, however ambiguous, provides depth, so the music speaks to more than just the present moment. As the crowd sung along to the encore Drum, performed acoustically in the middle of the music hall, it felt like a act of worship and fellowship. My next experience with HGM will be in the less reverential environment of the Mediterranean at Primavera in May. Happily, it is anything but an ephemeral act, and Taylor said: 'The thing about Hiss Golden Messenger is it’s a long game I’m playing'. I can't imagine ever tiring of musicianship of this calibre, and I'm hoping they'll consider releasing a live album to help me to relive relive last night's experience.

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