“One way to look at it… is that we are all lost, we were already lost the day we were born. In music, we can become tragically and beautifully lost…and found again.”
— From “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” by Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate
Hiss Golden Messenger‘s Forward Children, as the title suggests, is for the benefit of Durham Public Schools, and all proceeds from sales go to this worthwhile cause. That is typical of the band’s generosity of spirit, and particularly of band leader M.C. Taylor’s commitment to this cause (his parents were teachers, as is his wife). Live shows on the band’s most recent tour featured regular pauses to champion the teachers and staff in his hometown’s public schools and public education in general. Taylor canvassed the audience to identify teachers and salute them individually and collectively. The band’s online store sells a T-shirt emblazoned with the bald and simple message, “Defend Public Schools”, a shirt that Taylor himself wore for a live appearance on CBS This Morning’s Saturday Sessions in November 2019.
So a sense of community spirit, not only feeling oneself an integral part of the community where one lives but actively working to improve the lives of others in that community, whether immediately close to home or more generally in the world at large, is woven into the fabric of Taylor’s sensibility. He is also a trained folklorist, so he knows something about how communities and traditions are formed and forged. It’s fitting during these extraordinary times when we are forced back on ourselves, faced with a mirror that may, both literally and existentially, show us something less than flattering, that M.C. Taylor and the good people of Hiss Golden Messenger pivot to an outward-facing act of altruism and selflessness. This album serves as an act of community building in a time of acute isolation and uncertainty, finding, as the band’s touchstone song “I Need a Teacher” (from their latest album Terms of Surrender, and featured here) says, “beauty in the broken American moment”.
The show from which this album comes took place on Saturday, 11 January 2020, at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, North Carolina, after a 60-date tour in 2019. This recording serves as a time capsule of what physical community felt like right on the eve of things never being sane again. A dollar from every ticket sold on the tour went toward the Bull City Schools Foundation that is benefiting from this album’s release. The live album that we get here is trimmed down slightly from the original show, showcasing 15 of the live set’s 19 songs, and very slightly re-ordered from that setlist. But it’s otherwise a faithful rendering of the Hiss Golden Messenger live experience, showcasing the band’s prodigious musicianship, the strong bond they establish with their audience (and with each other – these folks clearly like each other) and an impressive catalog of songs that spans a decade. The warmth of the sound on this recording, which is frankly quite impeccable, is also indicative of the in-person vibe at the band’s shows, where community is conjured, solidified, and celebrated.
The band here comprises Taylor himself, along with indispensable multi-instrumentalist wingman Phil Cook, guitarist Chris Boerner (latterly re-named Bronco at some point on the recent tour, and also an extraordinarily accomplished sound engineer on many of the band’s studio recordings), bassist Al Bingham (it has not been possible to establish whether he was wearing his trademark vibrant green jumpsuit for this particular show), and drummer Al Smith, along with Evan Ringel on trombone (which makes a warm sound even warmer), and stalwart guitar tech Billie Feather on tambourine.
There are so many points of light in the band’s back catalog that it’s no wonder M.C. Taylor often wears some interestingly tinted shades onstage, and the songs featured here span most of the length of the band’s existence, sparkling and twinkling throughout. The set begins with “Call Him Daylight”, from 2010’s Bad Debt. It moves through a healthy smattering of material from last year’s Terms of Surrender, including the glorious early ventilation of “My Wing”, along with “I Need a Teacher”, dedicated to the aforementioned public school employees, “Happy Birthday, Baby”, written for Taylor’s daughter, and the gorgeous “Cat’s Eye Blue”.
Along the way we hit many and varied highpoints, including “Red Rose Nanthala”, from 2013’s Haw, “Saturday’s Song” and “Southern Grammar” from 2014’s Lateness of Dancers, “Biloxi”, the anthemic and totemic crowd favorite “Highland Grace,” and the joyful redemption of the title track from the high watermark of 2016’s Heart Like a Levee, and the jam band-flavored “When the Wall Comes Down” from Hallelujah Anyhow (2017). Then we finally circle back to the band’s earlier years with the show-closing stomp of “Blue Country Mystic” from 2012’s Poor Moon. It’s wonderfully enhanced by the flare of Evan Ringel’s trombone, a delightful addition to the band’s already vibrant sound.
The relentless excellence of the band’s output means that they can take their pick from almost two handfuls of albums, and they do that deftly here, stepping lightly through their songbook with a variety of tempos and styles that adds up to a deeply satisfying listening experience. This variety and versatility allow for more expansive and contemplative passages, all of which builds to the towering showpiece of “Jesus Shot Me in the Head”, (Bad Debt – 2010) clocking in at over 12 minutes in length. But for all the heaviness and girth of a song like “Jesus Shot Me in the Head”, a deadly serious conversion narrative, and for all that much of Taylor’s lyrical output ponders his own shortcomings to the point that he verges on self-loathing. “Go easy on me, I’m not doing too well / Do you hate me, honey / As much as I hate myself?” from “Heart Like a Levee”, featured here, is a typical moment of brutal self-examination.
There is a counter-balancing sense of perspective and, for the most part, a musical shimmer that enables the band to wear the twinned pressures self-doubt and spirituality relatively and equally lightly. The live album rendition of “Heart Like a Levee”, for example, while lyrically riddled with self-doubt, also represents the show’s lightest moment, featuring a full-throated singalong, interrupted by Taylor’s amused commentary. So while there is a pervasive and acute awareness of Original Sin in Taylor’s worldview, the acknowledgment of our collective brokenness is not reflected in despair so much as an articulation of what is captured in the title of the band’s most recent album, Terms of Surrender. The music from this show can be heard and felt like a form of trust exercise in which we allow ourselves to fall and know that we will be caught by the safety net of a musical community the comprises both musicians and audience members. It’s a joyous ecosystem, and all of its parts are on display here.
Part of this sense of exquisite balance can be attributed to Taylor’s, and the band’s, catholic musical tastes and interests, and it’s instructive to note that the band have connections to two dearly and recently departed American musical icons, Bill Withers and John Prine. Taylor himself played in what was essentially a Bill Withers cover band at the 2017 Newport Folk Festival. The band shared Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium stage with John Prine in October of last year, also covering Prine’s “Christmas in Prison” with Lucinda Williams for 2019’s Merge holiday album, You Wish. In these connections, there is solid and extensive evidence of a good faith immersion in and commitment to inclusive American music, sensible of all of its traditions and tributaries. There is a full and authentic sense of that commitment from the band, and its reciprocation from the audience, in this life-affirming set of songs from a recent time that now feels so very far away.
The excerpt from Joy Harjo at the outset of this review is one of M.C. Taylor’s many poetry touchstones, as social media followers will be aware. Still, it is Wendell Berry to whom Taylor most often terms for solace and guidance. And indeed we can find our consolation there too, as a way of experiencing this album, in these particular and difficult times. As Berry so concisely and reassuringly put it, “what we need is here.”