It’s a cold December night in east London, but Hiss Golden Messenger are about to bring the warm summer sun of North Carolina to the Village Underground. The group, an ever-changing collective of top-flight solo musicians masterminded by frontman MC Taylor, play good, wholesome Americana. In true Deep South style, they are completely without irony – they love music, and they live out the troubadour lifestyle they sing about day by day. The noise they make is warm, melodic and compelling – a relaxed but beautiful mix of folk, funk, country and rock.
Tonight the show is opened by The Dead Tongues, a gothic and mysterious name for what turns out to be a scrawny man in a woolly hat. TDT is a master of many instruments, however, and he gives us 45 minutes of heartfelt and driving roots music on guitar, banjo and stompbox. If I knew what a hoodoo looked like, one would definitely have sprung to mind. Likewise a bayou. It’s a good omen of things to come.
When the headliners take to the stage, TDT is among their ranks, holding down whipcracking guitar at stage left. MC Taylor stands front and centre, a spectre of vertical blonde hair and Dylanesque wailing, supported by the simply epic Phil Cook (who just grins and grins) on keys and second guitar.
With a subdued ‘how y’all doin’?’, Hiss launch into the groove of As The Crow Flies, a rolling country-funk jam flowing with vocal harmonies and electric piano, and we’re transported. Alligators, grits, collard greens, fireflies, front porches and girls with two first names all seem appropriate. The sound is wonderfully sun-baked and easy, and the musicianship consummate.
Once the band hit their stride (which is very quickly), they don’t come down for the next two hours. They are by turns tender and muscular, gentle and powerful. Never ragged, always controlled, but free-flowing and loose-limbed. You could easily imagine each number stretching out for twenty minutes, and what’s more, you’d listen happily to the very end. When they do cut loose and jam, it’s tasteful, not indulgent. Cook in particular is a joy. He achieves that rarest of feats – a keyboard solo that you actually want to last longer than it does.
It’s all done with such humility and pleasure. Taylor is voluble between songs, regaling us with tales of the road and his brief times at home with his family. When they play, the band watch each other, smiling and nodding at particularly inspired notes, trading licks, clearly revelling in the experience of making music. It all comes together into a simple and uplifting evening of straight-ahead good-time music.
Gigs often make us happy – even euphoric. There can be a special kind of ecstatic isolation at a good concert. Hiss Golden Messenger, however, are the first band to make me feel like I’m home. When the encore begins, I truly do not want it to end.
Hiss Golden Messenger are currently touring the USA. They post regular tour updates on their Instagram feed.
(N.B. This blog was written a few months after the gig, as we backdate some entries)