Hiss Golden Messenger, Natalie Prass
Haw River Ballroom, Saxapahaw
Friday, April 17, 2015
I did not walk into the Haw River Ballroom Friday night expecting to fall in love with an old flame. I billed this show as “The Natalie Prass concert” to my partner, in part because we’d both been enamored with the opener’s debut album earlier this year and in part because I’ve seen Hiss Golden Messenger more times than I should confess. I assumed Prass would steal the show, her voice earning the adoration of 700-plus eager Hiss Golden Messenger fans.
Prass, though, played an engaging and far too short 30-minute set. It left me dreaming of future shows, when she’ll have more material and resources at her disposal. On her record, dark lyrics rub against playful, bright arrangements. In concert, standard guitar, bass and drums replaced the more intricate strings and horns.
Still, Prass smiled widely. When she wasn’t playing guitar, she carried a toy Godzilla and moved about the stage, gesturing broadly with her arms and hands. Given this setup, the seething, whispered jealously of “Christy,” sung over a string quartet on her self-titled LP, felt less like the expression of an open wound and more like a memory she was laughing off.
Though Prass didn’t steal the show, this isn’t about her failure; this is about the triumph of Hiss Golden Messenger.
In 2011, I stood outside a Hopscotch Music Festival day party at the Lump Gallery, waiting to hear a new-to-me songwriter who went by the mysterious name Hiss Golden Messenger. The party was running behind schedule, so I missed that day’s set, only adding to the mystery. But on Friday, there was no mystery. Hiss Golden Messenger has become a wide-open rock band. Frontman Michael Taylor began by asking his crew—William Tyler on guitar, Phil Cook on keys and guitar, Brad Cook on bass, Matt McCaughan on drums—“Brother, do you know the road?”
The usual “Yes, my brother, I know the road” answered back, but there was something new there. Heavy downbeats kicked in; Taylor constricted and released with them. “Yes, my brother, I know the road” was no longer a familiar passive mantra; it was a bold declaration.
Taylor has come a long way from his days as a seated enigma, hiding beneath a trucker hat. He stood tall Friday night, a confident leader. He playfully called Tyler “Nashville Willie T,” and he often pointed at the audience.
The band went with him. Taylor openly exclaims love for his bandmates, and they all pat and hug each other as they laugh between songs. These musicians have other acts, sure, but this one doesn’t seem like a secondary gig. Phil Cook’s curls tickled his keyboard as he leaned over the organ. Tyler added small, restrained solos between beats, and Brad Cook responded with funky accents. “Call Him Daylight” and “Blue Country Mystic” didn’t sound like the stuff of a singer-songwriter with complex accompaniment. They have become show-stoppers.
The richness filled the room, sounding like it could load venues 10 times the size of Haw River Ballroom. Hiss Golden Messenger used to be synonymous with Mike Taylor. It means something much more now.
Watch videos of a few songs—including one new one—below. Special thanks to Jonas Blank at NYCTaper for the audio.
Hiss Golden Messenger, “Brother, Do You Know the Road?” & “Call Him Daylight”
Hiss Golden Messenger, “Say It Like You Mean It”