MC Taylor, the singer/songwriter at the helm of roots music outfit Hiss Golden Messenger, isn’t afraid to let his California influences show. Though he now lives in Durham, North Carolina, he began his musical career on the Pacific Coast with alt-country band The Court and Spark, and his music is deeply indebted to Laurel Canyon folk-rock and the psychedelic country-rock of the Grateful Dead.
The Grateful Dead never played DC’s 9:30 Club, but HGM’s recent performance there was perhaps a glimpse into what that might’ve been like. After an opening set by Philadelphia singer-songwriter Rosali, HGM took the stage for a set that ran far more than two hours, with plenty of long instrumental jams. They even closed the evening with a cover of the Dead’s “Bird Song.”
After moving to North Carolina, Taylor began recording himself playing solo, with just an acoustic guitar, frequently recording himself in his kitchen. While this characterized his first few releases under the HGM moniker, the project took off after a few albums, and the albums became more expansively produced. Taylor’s skills a s a songwriter have also grown, and he was nominated for a Grammy for Best Americana Album for 2019’s Terms of Surrender.
When he took the stage on Dec. 8, Taylor remarked, “It’s a quiet 9:30 Club.” The vibe at this concert was chill, very relaxed, attentive and appreciative of the music. The vibe fit the music, with its mellow, gauzy texture. I had been fighting a headache all day, and it met me exactly where I was.
After opening the set with the plaintive “Standing in the Doorway,” Mike addressed the elephant in the room at all shows these days. “It’s nice to be back here,” he said, adding, “it’s been a a hard couple of years, but to be able to go out and play music for people has brought me hope.” The next song, “I’ve Got a Name for the Newborn Child,” addressed one of his frequent subjects, parents and children, while “As The Crow Flies” was full of nature imagery that would’ve made Dead lyricist Robert Hunter proud.
Watch Hiss Golden Messenger perform “I’ve Got a Name for the Newborn Child” for Paste on YouTube:
Between songs, Mike told the audience, “I can’t think of a thing I love more than to travel up and down the East Coast in December playing shows.” During the pandemic, he mentioned, he made two new records. He described the title of the first, Quietly Blowing It, as “the mission statement of my life.” HGM’s other album, released more recently, was the holiday-themed O Come All Ye Faithful. Though he’s never pummeled his audiences with it, there’s always been a spiritual aspect to Taylor’s music, and a holiday album is not a major departure for him.
Like the Dead, HGM, and MC Taylor in particular, are fans of psychedelics. When he introduced “My Wing,” he told the audience, “this song was written on mushrooms.” (This prompted me to turn to my friend and ask if he’d tried writing on paper.) He went on to mention, with approval, that mushrooms are now legal in DC.
HGM’s music has a definite literary bent; at one point during the set, he mentioned the famous O. Henry short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” A seasonally appropriate reference, in the story, a man buys his wife a fancy comb as a Christmas present, but she cuts and sell her hair to buy something for him. Nature imagery also abounds in his writing, from the aforementioned “My Wing” to “Jenny of the Roses.” A sense of place runs through songs like “Biloxi,” and there’s a powerful social consciousness at work in songs like “Mighty Dollar.” The spiritual dimension of his music was apparent in “Bright Direction” and “The Great Mystifier.”
Public education is deeply important to Taylor. His wife is an ESL teacher, and his sister is a high school counselor. A dollar from the sale of every ticket to his shows goes to support an education non-profit in his hometown in Durham. During the show, he asked if there were any teachers in the audience. One member of the audience was an art teacher, while another teaches kindergarten special ed. As he did in Wednesday’s set, he usually plays his song, “I Need A Teacher.”
Toward the end of the set, Taylor brought Rosali back out, and HGM back her on one of her songs. For his penultimate number, he got the audience singing along to “Heart Like a Levee.” When they came back for their encore, they really spread out on that Dead number I mentioned, “Bird Song.”
Jerry Garcia may have left us 25 years ago, but I felt like his spirit was with us in the 9:30 Club on Wednesday evening. HGM’s music captured a lot of what made the Dead magical — the gorgeous, hazy instrumental work, and the mystical lyricism of Robert Hunter. At the same time, Taylor endows his music with a much stronger social consciousness, giving it further dimensions and depths.
Here are some photos of Hiss Golden Messenger performing at 9:30 Club on Dec. 8, 2021. All photos copyright and courtesy of David LaMason.