By Adam McGrath
Not every show has to be a knockdown, raucous time. Occasionally it’s nice to just relax and listen to talented musicians ply their craft. Carolina roots rockers Hiss Golden Messenger and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig did just that Tuesday night at Johnny Brenda’s, soothing and swaying a modest but attentive crowd.
Hiss Golden Messenger, fronted by old soul MC Taylor, is in the middle of an East Coast tour in support of the newly released album Lateness of Dancers, the group’s first on Merge Records. Take a look at Taylor’s That Mag interview if you missed it.
Having only seen Taylor play solo as Hiss Golden Messenger, it was exciting to see him with the backing of an excellent band. Phil Cook of Megafaun brought a Ray Manzarek vibe to the keyboard, drummer Matt McCaughan of Bon Iver laid down a nice foundation with HGM stalwart Scott Hirsch on bass, and Matt Douglas added some solid baritone and tenor sax. Providing a platform for Taylor’s subtle guitar work and craggy, warm voice, the talented group obviously felt comfortable playing together.
The set kicked off with “Red Rose Nantahala” from the 2013 album Haw, followed quickly by three tracks from Dancers: “Saturday’s Song”, “Mahogany Dread”, and “Day O Day (A Love So Free)”. Presented in the same order as the album, these three songs represent the best of Hiss Golden Messenger’s simple, thoughtful writing. Themes of family and spirituality run through Taylor’s work, all the while buoyed by a sense of hope and fun.
Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, who opened the show, joined the band for “Day O Day”, as she also appears on that track on the album. A delicate little thing, Sauser-Monnig possesses a voice out of time, its resonance calling to mind early American frontier women. Performing songs like “Long Leaf Pine” and “Fellows” in a trance-like state, Sauser-Monnig stunned the crowd into silence with her vocal prowess.
As the set continued and the band worked through some older material, the rapt quietude of the audience started to get to Taylor, as he quipped that he appreciated the attention, but it was also “kind of stressful.” It didn’t help that the time between songs sometimes stretched on as Taylor meticulously retuned each of the three guitars used throughout the night. Some momentum was definitely lost in these moments.
Nevertheless, things came to a rousing close with “Southern Grammar”, a Clapton-esque tune that kicks along with a rumbling gait. After a quick exit, Taylor and Cook led the group directly out onto the venue floor to lead a sing-a-long version of “Drum”, a song that has appeared on multiple HGM albums and features the line “Take the good news, and carry it away.” Whatever your interpretation of those words, the musical good news reached all of our ears that night, and I for one am happy to carry it to you.