Anyone entering the 9:30 Club would have known immediately they weren’t attending any ordinary show. After all, you weren’t really passing into the familiar concrete space of the popular club at the end of the U Street Corridor. Rather, you were stepping foot into some sort of old-time fortune-teller’s boutique, a sacred space for sorcerers or sorceresses, or maybe some secret place of worship.
But, for what, those unfamiliar with Hiss Golden Messenger were probably unsure.
The outnumbered newcomers might have arrived unaware of the growing following for the band, but just a song into the night found themselves surrounded by the fervid Hiss Golden Messenger area listeners from the DMV on Jan. 15. The band’s symbol illuminated on a custom created backdrop, bulbs in a candle-light radius on the stage, it was as if a hex had already been cast on those in the room.
And with the first few squawky, Southern-spiked blues chords of the opening song “Red Rose Nantahala,” the 9:30 crowd was immediately loosened — a congregation of scarecrows cut free from their hoist and, in unison, busting into the funky bird hop, grassy two-step oscillation that characterizes some of the country- and bluegrass-influenced songs in the band’s catalogue.
Leader Mike “MC” Taylor, whose music has been the foundation of the band since its inception in the late 2000s, was the perfect courier for the powerful messages and stories that have helped Hiss Golden Messenger create not just an uncommon sound but a culture to accompany it.
With the words “let me be the one I want, let me love the one I want,” followed by the anthem-like chorus “Oh lord, let me be happy,” MC (Ex-Ignota, The Court & Spark) set the tone for a night that would become a foray into self-reckoning and hope, against a backdrop of spirituality and family, desire and fear.
The second song of the evening, and the ever-important third track on Hiss Golden Messenger’s newest album Terms of Surrender (Merge Records), “My Wing” sailed and rocked with elements of soul, psychedelia, and Irish jig. Taking off and building to a collision of guitar, keys, and harmonica, “My Wing”’s genesis — the result of a mushroom-induced hallucination, as told by MC — almost seems too simple given the esoteric imagery in the lyrics and the figurative distance the song covered as it soared into an atmospheric shindig.
Already a Hiss classic, “My Wing” flied you above ground at high speed, marshy planes below you, the mass of the universe right over your shoulders, for an introspective voyage through your own timeline.
Another favorite from Terms of Surrender, MC and team turned in a heftier version of the cosmic folk tune “Bright Direction (You’re a Dark Star Now)” at 9:30 Club. A rotational, string-propelled journey, the track snaps into rhythm with its undeniably catchy hook and circular movement. It’s as if you are MC’s passenger, cruising with him in an old beat pickup truck, orbiting Earth as the two of you reflect on what’s been done and what could be done better down on the ground.
Along the way, MC showed you the bright and the dim, and he warned against straying from your path: “ah, dreams’ll come to get ya. So careful what you’re wishin’. Your family might correct ya. Your heart might take a pounding. Make sure you take a picture.” When you falter, you’ll know it — how you choose to carry that experience is what separates one person from another.
Stream Terms of Surrender by Hiss Golden Messenger on Spotify:
MC gave the audience words aimed to warn and encourage as he took them through his book of songs, including all but a couple from Terms of Surrender. Perhaps by design, MC’s political commentary was notably tame compared to just over a year prior when he came out of the gate hot on current events.
Addressing the crowd Wednesday following “When the Wall Comes Down” and its accidental neo-relevance, MC said he never expected the song would take on such a contemporary theme. Veiling his own disgust, he treaded in fairly neutral waters, adding: “Who knows how this shit’s gonna end? … Vote your asses off.”
The casual fan might see MC as a sharp-tongued, quick-witted yet even-keeled quarterback, which he’s proven to be — his glances at the younger musicians could really come only from a mentor, a teacher. A closer study of MC reveals a man who’s not only conducting the sounds of numerous instruments but also conjuring the deep, usually dark emotions and places from which these transformative songs were culled.
Focused but lively to start a set, there’s no question that by its end MC has exhausted himself through explosive, nearly spontaneous highs and lows in order to deliver these songs the way that the audience came to hear them — raw and authentic, from some hidden nook in his mysterious soul.
And, with a performance more than two hours long, that’s what he delivered.
After the opening verse, the lyrics in MC’s songs manifest themselves physically within him, his nostrils flaring as he triggered on pheromones that only he can sense, his head tilted down as if he’s on the hunt. It’s his experience toiling in sadness and happiness, lightness and darkness that suits him as a guide with the knowhow and the grit to navigate us through the rigid, unpredictable struggles we approach in our pursuit of contentment and meaning.
MC’s dark eyes locked on infinity when his songs were in full swing — if anything maybe staring at his own curious mixture of tattoos, some of them perhaps from his previous life as a punk musician in the ’90s, some maybe from more recent kaleidoscopic adventures.
With his lyrics that seem to bleed and a voice that can comfort, MC’s not ashamed of his life’s purpose and wasn’t hiding from any emotional substance aggregated by his songs. This was a man clearly possessed by his drive to use song and poetry as medicine for his fellow human, and he’s constantly looking for the next best step within that existence.
Over the course of a decade, Hiss Golden Messenger has seen the lineups for studio recordings and live lineups morph, which has exposed followers to incredible talents as MC brought on a range of gifted, sometimes up-and-coming musicians for records, tours, or both.
A regular alongside MC since the men met in 2012 is Phil Cook (Megafaun, DeYarmond Edison), a dynamic veteran blessed with nonchalant skills on the piano, keyboard, harmonica, and guitar who helped MC create a signature sound. As loyal a teammate as you’ll find in music, somewhere between instrumentalist peacemaker and warhammer, there’s Cook: long hair, denim jacket and Converse All-Stars — like the cool uncle who introduced you to music years ago, but he never lost that spirit.
Smirking and shaking his head to the wild, possibly drunken “PHIL” screams from the floor in between songs, Phil couldn’t have been bribed into stealing the spotlight at the 9:30 Club, save for his unforgettable solos, like the piano in “Harder Rain” — an eye-watering piece that could lift up and wipe clean the most drenched, downtrodden souls.
Flanked by a group of underappreciated artists, MC’s role as a family man — a central theme of his songwriting — might be taking on a different form, one that extends beyond his wife and two young children to the road, where he spends a significant amount of time.
This concept extended to the album artwork for Terms of Surrender — what looks like a wispy bird’s nest, one that connects and symbolizes the different aspects of MC Taylor’s life. Having openly sought mentorship from older, more seasoned musicians and folklorists who inspired him, MC’s life is coming full-circle as Hiss Golden Messenger serves as the vehicle for apprenticeship.
Guitarist Chris Boerner (The Mighty Burners, The Foreign Exchange) is an accomplished musician in his own right with experience in jazz, classical guitar, and sound engineering — he also mastered Terms of Surrender. His presence and textures helped the band achieve new sounds on older songs, especially a classic like “Mahogany Dread.” Approval in the form of a mischievous grin, MC used his non-verbal communication to root Chris along.
On display throughout the night at 9:30 Club, MC’s brand of bonding and a connectivity with his team would bode well for the future of any band.
Bassist Alex Bingham (Mandolin Orange, The Dead Tongues) — bouncing and bumping within his own phone booth space — provided warmth, fluidity, and welcome playfulness to this edition of Hiss Golden Messenger.
Drummer Alex Benjamin Smith (Brad Parsons) had a mystique of his own — his hands smooth and controlled, his eyes wide and luminous, his timing is the band’s timing. At some angles the most youthful and fresh of the bunch, his expression was like a kid at the zoo who lagged behind for an extra-long gaze at some exotic species.
In some ways, these blossoming musicians were reading MC, just as the audience is interpreting him and his mannerisms and then framing that against their own existence.
An enthusiastic reader himself who picks through stacks of used poetry books at shops on the road, MC wasn’t afraid of the different colors of his own life and didn’t shy from his own emotions. At the 9:30 Club, they emerged as if he was grilling himself in some sort of interrogation room or conducting his own personal exorcism.
Often during his performances, while transfixed, he looks on the verge of breaking into hysteric laughter — or weeping. What combination of terrible and wonderful experiences have granted him the power to channel these songs in a form so accessible?
The most intent listener might never know, but he or she can use this music to meditate on the potentially horrifying heightened collective sense of awareness in today’s world. It’s a world with features that MC openly disdains, especially via Twitter.
But with more of his energy focused on cultivating and nurturing the music Wednesday night, his overall thrust was more nourishing than scornful. Rather than try to dissect the problems facing the public education system and public-school teachers — an admitted “thorn” in his side as the son of two teachers — he was solution-focused and pointed out that a dollar donation was added to the cost of each ticket to the show.
MC let the music do the rest of the talking as the band played “I Need a Teacher,” a song on the newest album inspired by public school teachers march last year in North Carolina.
Reinforcing a theme of “self-help,” MC offered cryptic tips for choosing your own life, creating the family you want to make and embracing positive and negative experiences simultaneously, much like his songs can be both somber and uplifting in the same instance — just like any day on Earth.
MC asked that the audience remind the people they care for of their importance and to let the “good people know that they matter.”
It was perhaps his most heartfelt sentiment of the night, delivered leading up to the evening’s encore — two covers, the first being a celebratory take on Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River,” with help from the night’s opener — talented Nashville singer-songwriter Lilly Hiatt. The son of the legendary John Hiatt, Lilly Hiatt is another rising female star whom Taylor’s shined light on via his tours the last few years.
While Hiss Golden Messenger builds on its own rituals and customs, which is at the essence of folk music and the folk tradition, there’s an endless inventory of music that has and continues to influence MC — a California native — and the night ended with a tribute to of one of the band’s greatest influences.
After teasing “Franklin’s Tower” in the middle of set finale “Lucia,” MC honored many requests and went all in with his popular cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Brown Eyed Women,” a song he recorded for the 2016 compilation “Day of the Dead.” It’s a song that speaks to family struggles in an earlier America and feels distilled from the same jug as some of the best Hiss work.
As the 9:30 Club doors opened, and attendees filed onto the lawless late-night streets of the District, anyone who’d listened had been influenced, maybe consoled, perhaps even enlightened. MC’s words, and the sounds of Hiss Golden Messenger, like an antidote to some festering within that you’d been afraid to face or like some desperate escape, will eventually work their magic.
Red Rose Nantahala
Jenny of the Roses
When the Wall Comes Down
I Need a Teacher
Down at the Uptown
As the Crow Flies
Lost Out in the Darkness
Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer
Cat’s Eye Blue
Jesus Shot Me in the Head
Brown Eyed Women
Green River (with Lilly Hiatt)
Here are some pictures of Hiss Golden Messenger performing at 9:30 Club on Jan. 15, 2020. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.