By Carter Shelter, Staff Writer
“Be patient with me when I don’t have a rhyme” goes one of the lines in the title track of Hiss Golden Messenger’s latest album, “Heart Like a Levee.” The North Carolina indie folk group, led by singer and songwriter M.C. Taylor, proved the virtues of patience during a marathon show at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg on Nov. 15.
Taylor, along with his incredibly talented band of musicians, led the crowd through over two hours of material, but still managed to leave the crowd wanting more. They started off the set with a powerful bunch of songs, capped off by “Mahogany Dread,” an outstanding piece of songwriting off of 2014’s “Lateness of Dancers.” There appeared to be two distinct groups of fans at the Brooklyn show; those who knew of Hiss Golden Messenger and those who knew Hiss Golden Messenger, and it’s hard to deny the magic in seeing that latter group, those people who have developed a deep, intimate connection with many of the songs and the band, get into the groove of the show. By “Mahogany Dread,” they were there, and so was Taylor, and by “Heart Like a Levee” it seemed as though the rest of the crowd was too. After all, it would have been hard not to feel overcome with joy after the sing-along that filled the room during that number, led by the band’s standout multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook and backup singer (and excellent singer-songwriter in her own right) Tift Merritt.
At some point, though, the show started to drag. A lot of Hiss Golden Messenger songs sound fairly similar, relying on a mid-tempo folk pop feel, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, when they are all strong together in the set it becomes easy to lose focus. The band was also not engaging in quite the level of exploration of the songs as they would on previous tours. They were always a group that wasn’t afraid to play a little loose with the structures of some songs and would rework them and jam on them to make each show unique. But this time around, particularly on songs from the new album, the arrangements largely sounded a little more cut and dry, maybe with the occasional solo thrown in. There were still some gems throughout the set, and whenever Taylor and co. would switch gears and go into one of their more rocking songs like “I’m a Raven (Shake Children)” or took things down a notch and allowed the sadness that often haunts the lyrics to shine, as in “Cracked Windshield,” it was obvious that the audience was right back on board.
Those loyal fans were then rewarded with one of the most redeeming encores the band could have put on. After a couple of shouted requests when the band returned to the stage, M.C. Taylor decided to oblige, and the band burst into their first live performance of the Grateful Dead’s “Brown Eyed Women,” a cover that appeared earlier this year on the “Day of the Dead” compilation. They were aided by the presence Brooklyn-based guitarist and producer Josh Kaufman on stage, who, after being invited up for a couple of songs earlier in the night, let loose an astonishingly virtuosic guitar solo that likely left a couple of jaws on the floor. For those that weren’t so easily impressed, Kaufman had more up his sleeve. On “Brother, Do You Know the Road?” which serves as the band’s customary jam-heavy closer, he was given free reign to let loose a blistering, mind-bending feat of guitar playing that absolutely brought the house down. Phil Cook just built on the energy with a similarly stunning keyboard solo before Taylor wrapped things up by stepping away from the microphone and calling out the song’s titular line to the crowd. “Yes my brother, I know the road” called back an audience in stunned satisfaction. Any problems with the shows pacing go out the window with an ending like that. That’s a way to go out.
“Heart Like a Levee” was released on Oct. 7, 2016 through Merge Records.