This May, I saw Mike Taylor from Hiss Golden Messenger play a solo set at South Carolina’s first-ever Blackstock Music Festival. His spiritual folk ruminations were an odd fit for the mostly jam-band lineup. To make things worse, Taylor was lined up against a full-band set from Will Hoge, another singer that specializes in rustic and intelligent rock. Throughout Taylor’s performance, the crowd fluctuated between about five and 15 people. It was disheartening.
In the six months since Taylor’s Blackstock set, Hiss Golden Messenger’s star has risen considerably. Lateness of Dancers, the band’s debut for Durham-based indie mainstay Merge Records, exposed the band to a host of new listeners. In the middle of a rare full-band tour, Taylor and his backers were in fine form when they hit CBS’ The Late Show with David Letterman last night, ripping through Lateness highlight “Southern Grammar.” Ignited by rumbling guitar choogle from Megafaun’s Phil Cook and filled out by sleek backing vocals and robust horns, the performance proved that Taylor’s intellectual folk-rock can also be a lot of fun.
At the end of the band’s fiery late-night television debut, Letterman emphatically congratulated his musical guests. “What are you worried about?” Letterman asked Taylor, joking about his pensive lyrics. “Nothing,” Taylor smiled. “Well, you shouldn’t be worried about a damn thing,” Letterman responded. “This is all you need right here.”
Merge Records has also just announced a Hiss Golden Messenger Southern Grammar EP, which will feature the song as well as a few other Lateness-era cuts. You can preorder the EP here.
But playing The Late Show isn’t the only excitement Hiss Golden Messenger has encountered of late. On their way from Santa Cruz, California to San Francisco for a show at The Independent on Nov. 11, they got word that they needed to arrive at the club early to load in before a private event. Turns out, the event was a free, Twitter-announced appearance by country icon Garth Brooks, promoting his new album. Brooks didn’t technically open for them, as Hiss Golden Messenger’s concert was separately ticketed, but it was a memorable experience nonetheless.
Taylor and Cook related the tale on their way to New York this Tuesday:
Mike Taylor: We got up there at about 1:30 and loaded in and were asking about soundcheck and generally what the deal was. The house manager brought us back to the backstage area and showed us this posted set times sheet. We were like, “That says Garth Brooks right there. Did you mean to put that on there?” And he was like, “Yeah, Garth Brooks is playing here.”
It was all really strange, super strange. Pretty awesome to watch actually. Really awesome to watch. We were sitting in our own little area that they gave us, like 15 feet away from the dude that has sold more records than basically anybody ever.
He was playing a couple tracks from his new album, like over the PA. And then he picked up an acoustic guitar and just played some songs solo, which was pretty rad to see. And then he did a Q&A. The club is maybe 500-capacity, and there were maybe 250 people there, which I was a little surprised about. People were just losing their minds because they were getting to ask Garth Brooks these questions in a really small crowd. That was maybe the most interesting part. He was so adept at just interfacing with these people in a way that felt pretty sincere and engaged, but kind of not get bogged down in a person tripping out that they were talking to him. It got a little heavy.
Phil Cook: [There] was a question from an older woman. She said she had just lost her dad and wanted to know if “The Dance” — she wanted to know where that song came from, where songs like that came from. She choked up while she was saying it, of course. It was a huge, heavy moment, and of course, it ended with him playing “The Dance.”