Hiss Golden Messenger
Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014

The last time I saw Hiss Golden Messenger at Cat’s Cradle, it was in the venue’s significantly smaller Back Room. Like Saturday night’s performance, it was a release show, but for the Paradise of Bachelors reissue of Bad Debt. HGM mastermind Michael Taylor performed solo, with Alexandra Sauser-Monnig opening. It was a great show, but I was deep in one of the worst months of my life. The quiet anxieties of Bad Debt spoke to my own private panic.

Fast forward six-and-a-half months: Everything’s better. I’m done with school, gainfully employed and most importantly, healthy and happy. Taylor has taken over the main stage in the big room with a six-piece backing band. Sauser-Monnig has the opening slot again, but for a lot more people. The Cradle isn’t packed, but it’s respectably populated, especially considering Farm Aid a few miles away. The show is celebrating Lateness of Dancers, a soaring LP of rich, breathtaking songs—and Hiss Golden Messenger’s debut on Merge.

INDY music editor Grayson Currin wrote about the community aspect of Lateness of Dancers, and that came to life onstage. Scott Hirsch, Taylor’s lifelong musical collaborator, played bass, with Matt McCaughan rounding out the rhythm section. The Hot At Nights’ Matt Douglas moved between guitar and saxophone, while Phil Cook alternated between guitar and keys. Sauser-Monnig occasionally joined for harmonies, and armed with a Telecaster, William Tyler rounded out the outfit. The sound was mighty and righteous.

The band burned through every song it played—even the slower tunes like “Day O Day (A Love So Free)” and “Jesus Shot Me In The Head” swelled with emotion and energy. Appropriately, “Saturday’s Song,” which celebrates cutting loose after a hard week of work, felt just right early on. The interplay of guitars and keys is captivating on Lateness; live, it was explosive.

At 13 songs total, the set felt short, even though it came close to running to 90 minutes. It seemed, too, like a “greatest hits” night for Hiss Golden Messenger, which was just fine. Some of Taylor’s best cuts are his deepest, but not everyone wants to hear the HGM discography played front to back—though I did hear one shout for “Isobel,” a gorgeous track off Country Hai East Cotton, an early, dub-heavy LP that Taylor self-released in 2009. Regardless, HGM’s hits still land hard. The back-to-back pairing of “Lucia” and “Southern Grammar,” both off Lateness, closed the main set before the band returned for a double encore of “Chapter & Verse” and “Call Him Daylight.”

Aside from Taylor performing alone, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the same Hiss Golden Messenger lineup twice—and I’ve seen this band a lot. Every set has a completely different vibe. There was the grand, heavy Hopscotch performance in 2012 at Fletcher Opera Theater that also featured Cook and Tyler, among others. There was another later that year at The Pinhook where the band had a horn player and ripped through relative rarities like “O Nathaniel” and “Born on a Crescent Moon.”

That said, the Lateness of Dancers release party stands out as one of the best. There was joy in the room—especially on the stage—and a fellowship that reveled in the idea of mutual support and the notion that there’s a lot in life to celebrate, even if things aren’t perfect all the time. Lateness hammers home that point; just as Bad Debt resonated with my low points, Lateness reflects new peaks. As Taylor sings on “Drum,” which appears on both Bad Debt and Lateness, take the good news, and carry it away.

Set list:
Red Rose Nantahala
Saturday’s Song
Mahogany Dread
Day O Day (A Love So Free)
Blue Country Mystic
Jesus Shot Me in the Head
I Got a Name for the Newborn Child
Busted Note
I’m a Raven (Shake Children)
Southern Grammar
Chapter & Verse
Call Him Daylight