Sunday, November 22, 2015

Long Time Coming

Phil Cook and M.C. Taylor, brothers of the road.
I was wrong twice the other night. The first time was when this native New Yorker told someone at Canal Street that the downtown J train would take them to Delancey Street. My bad. I don't ride the J often enough to understand its wicked ways but I think I've got it down now. 

The second time was when my friend asked me "What's that instrument he's playing on the right?" "It's a Gretsch," I confidently replied, "they've come back in fashion lately." I also told him that John Lennon favored that sort of axe in the latter years of The Beatles. 

I couldn't resist pointing out that the bassist was playing a Gibson SG bass, another instrument I've seen often these days. The hegemony of the Fender Precision bass, fabulous as it is, seems to finally have ended, and the SG is a nice middle ground between that and the Hofner "violin" bass, which was made famous by Paul McCartney and became ubiquitous a couple of years ago. 

Anyway, it turned out that the Gretsch was actually a Guild, as I discovered when I got closer. At least I was right about the SG, and the Guild is a wide semi-hollow body not unlike the Gretsch. The object of this instrumental trainspotting was Hiss Golden Messenger, who were playing live right in front of us, and spectacularly, at Baby's All Right in Brooklyn. Sound is as important as song to Hiss Golden Messenger, which was why I was paying so much attention to what people were playing. Phil Cook was also on stage, playing a keyboard hidden in a rough-hewn plywood case as well as guitar. His brother Brad, AKA "the Rock," was on bass.

But the main man in Hiss Golden Messenger is M.C. Taylor, a singer, songwriter, and guitarist whose most recent album, Lateness of Dancers, topped my Best of 2014. This show was a consummation devoutly to be wished as I had missed a few opportunities to see them in the last year. To say it was worth the wait is a gross understatement - it was simply everything you could want from a rock & roll concert. 

There's a backbeat throb that Taylor and his comrades have mastered, with quarter-note bass lines and a fat snare, an hypnotic groove that irresistibly compels you to move. They worked that seam all night, mining a variety of moods from a rich motherlode of American music. After a brief intro before Taylor took the stage, they lit into Saturday's Song, and the jam-packed club was instantly into it. I scanned the crowd and found I was not the only one singing along, which was the case for nearly every song they played from Lateness Of Dancers. Intriguingly, a few of those songs were re-recordings from earlier in Taylor's career, but they didn't really connect. He's fully plugged in now and we all fed off the charge at Baby's.

As great as Taylor's lyrics are, this night was more about the music, with nearly every song achieving thrilling lift-off, sometimes verging on the edge of control. The man with the Guild (I missed his name!) was the ringleader on many of those occasions, which usually reached their height when he and Taylor turned their back on the crowd and lost themselves in the sound. We all followed them, aided by the weather and a malfunctioning air conditioner, which conspired to turn the club into a sweltering sweatbox. 

It was hot enough that I began to pontificate between songs about the Native American tradition of the sweat lodge. As my friend poured water on his head, I opined that perhaps it had been created as a way to alter their moods when they ran out of peyote - but what the hell do I know? (See J Train directions above for answer). In any case, our moods were definitely altered, in the direction of communal musical enjoyment.

Brother, Do You Know The Road?, from this year's Southern Grammar EP, was an extended highlight in a night filled with them. As the show neared its end, I turned to a guy next to me and said, "The next one is Southern Grammar, or he's saving it for the encore." Bingo - this time I was right - and the crowd exploded again, rocking out to a wicked riff that wouldn't sound out of place on a Dickie Betts & Great Southern album. 

I was dancing pretty hard, but no one was moving as much as Frazey Ford, who had opened the show and was now grooving off to the side, her hands in the air. Lucky lady - she gets to hear this every night while on tour. She was an apropos warm-up, too, her sweet Stax-folk sounding much less studied than on record. Her voice is warm and distinctive and the songs are sturdy. Her band was great, with two horn players enriching the sound. Phil Cook had started the night as her keyboard player, often employing that beloved Fender Rhodes setting, which sweetens everything.

Speaking of sweet, there was only a brief pause after Southern Grammar before the band returned for a single encore, a Waylon Jennings cover (Lonesome On'ry And Mean, I believe) that was a fitting capstone to the night. Then it was really over. The lights went up, Baby's began blasting cumbia and dancehall to prepare for a midnight show, and the crowd streamed out into the damp night.

I stood at the bar sipping a Blanton's and trying to make sense of what had transpired. It occurred to me that part of the wonder of what Taylor is up to is that this was only one possible way a concert by Hiss Golden Messenger could go. The songs are so good that I could picture a much mellower but no less satisfying evening featuring a stage crowded with fiddle, banjo, backup singers, and whatever else Taylor needed to add to realize his vision of Americana. I would happily sit and watch and hang on every brilliant word he sang. It was also pretty clear that HGM is outgrowing clubs the size of Baby's, a fact confirmed by Taylor when I spoke to him.

I also asked about the multimedia project he had premiered at Duke University just days before, called Heart Like A Levee and featuring photographs by William Gedney. "That's our next record," he told me, "but it won't come out for almost a year." Be still my heart. It's scheduled for next October and he hopes to tour with the photographs after it's released. I will be there, with eyes and ears open to whatever Taylor dreams up next. 

Here's a brief video that gives a sense of the show. See you at the next one.

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