Hiss Golden Messenger Dazzle at Music Hall of Williamsburg

November 16th, 2016

Hiss Golden Messenger – Music Hall of Williamsburg – November 15, 2016

The challenge when writing about Hiss Golden Messenger is to not overdo it. There’s marvelous stuff going on in this music, delivered in a deceptively simple framework. It’s the kind of thing that once you’re in its thrall and listening to frontman MC Taylor ramble on the frayed edges of Americana, you’re given to purple prose out of obligation, wanting to make sense of music that projects grandeur but also feels remarkably earthbound. It was a great turnout last night for Taylor’s latest stop in Brooklyn, part of a national tour behind the recent Hiss Golden Messenger album, Heart Like a Levee.

It’s accurate to call Hiss Golden Messenger a concept as much as a band; the live membership is variable (“MC Taylor + pals” is how they bill themselves), with a malleable cast of players who are at least as entranced as Taylor by what this music can do. At Music Hall, the band was on the larger side: usual suspects like Phil Cook on guitar and keys, Ryan Gustafson on lead guitar, Scott Hirsch on bass and Matt McCaughan on drums, plus expansion members like Josh Kaufman (everywhere lately) on guitar and the dazzling singer Tift Merritt, who earlier in the evening slayed with a soulfully roots-y solo set.

They were feeling it plenty: The band played a bit longer than the tour’s previous shows and held steady on a warm, almost hootenanny vibe that was at times both uplifting and spooked. Songs from Levee dominated, from “As the Crow Flies,” “Biloxi” and the soul-gospel “Happy Day” to the title track, and its loaded entreaty, “Will you grieve me, honey?/ Will I give you a reason to try?” “Tell Her I’m Just Dancing” is a Hiss Golden Messenger tune with a harder edge, awash with Cook keys in its closing jam. Such older tunes as “Lucia” and “Mahogany Dread” mixed with newer ones like “Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer,” and none were afraid of gritty rock and funk.

It’s Taylor’s band but the collective nature of it buoys him. His mates were free to roam, whether it was Merritt with deep-impact harmonies, or Gustafson injecting spooked or spacey guitar flourishes, or Cook pulling psychedelic tones from the keyboards to light the way. Together it’s a chameleonic thing—just when Hiss Golden Messenger sounded like a remarkably sturdy country-rock band, there were tears at the seams and more than hints of ’60s psychedelia, or a retreat into austere folk or hymnal balladry when it seemed like there might be a give in to boogie, or a heavy Southern soul thing when you were expecting, I don’t know, singer-songwriter confessionals. That it sounded like all part of one fabric is the mystery and also the joy. —Chad Berndtson | @Cberndtson