Hiss Golden Messenger + William Gedney: Heart Like a Levee
Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theatre, Durham
Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015

I don’t remember the first time I saw a Hiss Golden Messenger performance, but an early one lingers in my mind. It was in Winston-Salem at the second installment of that city’s small-but-solid Phuzz Phest. Hiss Golden Messenger—on that day, just Michael Taylor—was slated to perform on a stage inside Krankies Coffee. But Taylor relocated to an outdoor patio, strumming and singing for a small crowd of maybe 15. The sun slowly disappeared and a train horn wheezed in the distance behind him as springtime set in.

The Hiss Golden Messenger that took the stage Saturday night at Duke was a very different version of the “band” I saw that evening in Winston-Salem. Taylor stepped on stage with seven other musicians, premiering a piece he’d written as a commission for Duke Performances. His cohorts included a few longtime bandmates, like brothers Phil and Brad Cook on keys and bass and Matt McCaughan on drums. A few faces were new to the ensemble: Ryan Gustafson filled in on banjo, mandolin and guitar; Mark Paulson played violin; Tift Merritt added backing vocals; Mike Lewis replaced regular Matt Douglas on horn duties. Mike Wiley—the spirited local playwright and actor with whom Taylor has worked on other projects, like an adaptation of John Sayles’ Matewan—added occasional narration, lifted from poetry by Wendell Berry.

What followed was an immersive, album-length multimedia presentation of new work that was rich and exciting. Taylor’s songs have long been intensely emotional, but they’ve taken a brighter turn of late. Even when wrestling with difficult feelings—“Do you hate me half as much as I hate myself?” Taylor sang in “Heart Like a Levee”—the tones and timbres of Hiss Golden Messenger’s songs no longer sound steeped in so much anxiety. Taylor updated “A Working Man Can’t Make it No Way,” which first appeared on 2011’s Poor Moon, for the set, with Paulson’s violin transforming the tune into something a little more tender than the original.

As Taylor mentioned in an INDY interview, the photography featured in Heart Like a Levee wasn’t the dirty-child material that is so common to representations of the South. Instead, William Gedney’s photographs felt warm and intimate, even in black and white. Most of the images appeared to be of the same family, with many of them focusing on shirtless men examining cars under repair. Other photos offered people congregated on a porch or in a yard, play fighting or just sitting together. Only a few photos looked like proper portraits, but even those appeared relaxed and casual. I got the sense that, whoever these people were, they connected with Gedney in a meaningful way that allowed him true insight into their lives. The pictures more often reminded me of what it might be like to flip through another family’s photo album.

I wondered if the families or the individuals themselves (some of whom might now be in their 60s or 70s, or even younger) know about the project. This question hit hardest as the program concluded with “Highland Grace.” Taylor sang about how “loving her was easy,” with photos swirling around in the blackness, a flurry of memory.

After Heart Like a Levee ended, Taylor and company returned to the stage for a double encore of “Jesus Shot Me in the Head” and “Blue Country Mystic,” both cuts from Poor Moon. It intrigued me that Taylor chose to go further back in his catalog for the encores—these weren’t songs from his much more recent Merge Records debut Lateness of Dancers, or even from Haw, the 2013 record that turned a lot of new eyes toward HGM. Though Taylor has taken Hiss Golden Messenger in a new direction since its earliest days, his contemplative reverence for the past in song and beyond holds steady.