Saturday, August 10, 2019
One Longfellow Square, Portland, Maine
My friend Kenny T is a diehard Hiss Golden Messenger fan. Actually, a lot of guys who love music in my life love Hiss Golden Messenger, too. Without knowing any of his music, I decided to head to One Longfellow Square in Portland on a summer Saturday night to check him out for myself. There were a lot of dudes in the audience. Like, a lot. I nabbed a second row center seat, chatted with my neighbor about the Newport Folk Festival, and got ready to see what’s so great about HGM. I always prefer a solo performer and a guitar, and apparently that’s not the norm for HGM shows, so I was lucky to see MC Taylor up close and stripped down to a man, a guitar, and his songs.
MC told us that he married a Mainer and plays these shows annually when they’re here to visit family. He joked that he knew we’d be a discerning crowd, so he had to put a little work in–“it’s just a lot of words, you know?” And he was spot on. HGM songs are complex, wordy poems accompanied by guitar. I felt like not knowing the lyrics in advance was a disadvantage. I would have needed to read his songbook in advance to get the full force of what MC was trying to express. It was crystal clear that other folks in the audience adored MC and these songs. I appreciate that the songs meant so much to my fellow concert goers, though I don’t think I’m a convert.
MC said his new album Terms of Surrender is full of songs that started out in the same way with just him and his guitar in a room. He said he could remember the conception of all of the songs. He told us about writing the album last year. He said:
Last year was a tricky year for many of us. I was at loose ends. I was needing to find something. So I checked around looking for a place I could take some instruments and go write for a few days and I happened upon this cottage in the foothills of Virginia and the people that owned that land were kind enough to let me come up. I brought some guitars, recording equipment, and mushrooms with me. Not a lot, just a little bit. Not enough to lose my mind. I ate a little bit and walked to this deserted hillside. It was really cold and absolutely gorgeous and I felt thankful to be there. I was watching the sunset and then I heard the voices of children playing and I thought the mushrooms were hitting me because the place was absolutely deserted. I stood there just listening to these kids play, and instead of being terrified, I just enjoyed being in this in between place where I didn’t know if I was having a hallucination or not. Turns out, there were kids through the trees. There was a house through the trees I hadn’t seen before. They were just playing and having a normal day. However, it helped me write this song (“My Wing”). I came back into the house and wrote it really fast. It was probably the first song that was written for this new record called Terms of Surrender. When I got in touch with the people to see if I could come stay there they said, ‘yes you really should, we have two wild cats up here. One is called Hiss and the other is called Golden Messenger.’ What unwieldy names for cats.
MC paid tribute to David Berman from the Silver Jews who’d died a few days earlier. He covered “Dallas” by the Silver Jews and said:
We lost a great, great writer and musician this week named David Berman. He was a writer and an incredible poet and musician and had a band called the Silver Jews. He had a tough life, but he was a genius. When I bought my first Silver Jews record in 1996, really listening to the words he was singing cracked my head open in the best way and showed me you could be a true poet. I don’t think there was anyone in my musical universe around my same age that had a way with words quite like him. He was the best we had, I would say. The thing that’s so good about his music and his writing is that it’s hilarious and devastatingly sad at the same time. That’s what life feels like.
The first track on MC’s new album is “I Need a Teacher.” He told us:
I have a lot of teachers in my family–my parents were both public school teachers. My wife is a public school teacher. My sister is a high school counselor. My kids both go to public school. I’ve been surrounded by teachers my entire life. When I wrote this tune, I wasn’t thinking specifically about public school teachers, but the video went down to the teacher walkout in Raleigh, North Carolina where I live. Teachers were out in force protesting for better pay and support for their students, our kids. Seems like a no brainer to me. So I asked the video director, my friend Derek, a complicated mission. He put together the pieces and thought to send a film crew to the rally. I said “if you can make a video that makes me cry, I’m all for it.” I was weeping when I watched the first edit of the video. Are there any teachers in the crowd tonight? Thank you all for doing that. That’s a hard, hard job. A lot harder than what I’m doing. This is for you guys.
I raised my hand when MC asked if there were any teachers in the audience and we made eye contact. It was so nice to be thanked publicly for being a teacher. This moment really won me over.
I looked up the set lists for both nights, and very few (if any) songs were repeated from the first HGM show on Friday night to the next. I think that’s awesome. It was also pretty clear that the folks in the crowd were devoted fans and many attended both nights.
I loved MC’s story about “Happy Birthday, Baby”:
I have a daughter named Ione and she’s six years old and really feeling her oats now. I think she’s doing what I think that means. When she was about to turn five years old, she caught a snippet from “Biloxi”–‘six years old and truth be told you’re the only one’–was a bit of a birthday song for my son who is four years older than her. She got angry and didn’t like that song and said it wasn’t fair that I ‘played that song for Elijah.’ There is a song on the record called Ione’s song, but she didn’t know that, or maybe she didn’t like that song. So I told her I’d write her a song for her birthday. I wrote a song called “Happy Birthday, Baby” just to make it absolutely clear. I finished it and recorded it in my studio and added extra parts and the whole family was there and she listened intently and when it was done she said ‘thank you. It’s good. Let’s have cake.’ Since I’ve gone around the globe playing a song for Ione’s birthday I realize it’s probably more a song for me than for her and I hope she will grow into this tune.
MC introduced his last song–“Caledonia, My Love”–telling us this song was one of those rare ones that fell into his lap. Before he played, he sincerely thanked us for being there. I enjoyed how humble and kind MC Taylor was, and how clearly he respected and appreciated his fans. He closed the night saying:
Thank you all for being here and for letting me do this job and to listening to these songs for so many years. It’s unbelievable to me that I get to do this. Whatever existential drama I go through on a day to day basis trying to be a poet and play an acoustic guitar, I am so deeply grateful to you for coming and listening to these songs.
I am glad I checked Hiss Golden Messenger out for myself. I appreciated his sincerity and humility. I’m not sure I fell in love with his songs, but I could see so clearly that many people have, and I’m glad for them. It’s important to have music in your life that matters to you. MC Taylor has clearly provided that for a lot of people.