It begins, unconventionally, at the opposite end of the venue from the stage. A man with a guitar strikes a chord, allows it to linger for a while as he finds a good spot in the far corner of the room. This turns out to be MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, although for a brief moment it feels as if a mad imposter might be opening proceedings.
The chord ushers in an extended version of Taylor’s ‘orphan’ song Brother Do You Know The Road that revels in extreme contrasts. From the intimacy and delicacy of its unamplified opening (as the whole band walk through the audience to assume their positions on stage), the song eventually bursts into triumphant life, taking flight with a series of searing guitar solos from Phil Cook. The band take it at a determinedly slow tempo, but even at this pace it achieves a frazzled intensity.
For audience members familiar with Taylor’s recordings, tonight’s show may come as something of a surprise. A couple of songs in to the set, Taylor cites Bob Dylan’s recent MusiCares speech, in which (among many typically puzzling statements), he bemoaned that no contemporary band could swing or groove. “This band does,” Taylor attests confidently, “so Bob’s wrong on that.” It’s a bold statement, but Taylor is entirely right to make it. This band does swing, mostly without drummer Kyle Keegan playing a skip beat. It’s there though, deeply implied within these expansive takes on Taylor’s songs. On record, the grooves are certainly there (and the band has tended to resemble Al Green’s rhythm section at times), but in a lighter, more breezy way. Here, the music is powerful, righteous and unstoppable. Keegan and Taylor’s longstanding friend and collaborator Scott Hirsch are completely locked in with each other. It’s impossible not to feel it in your own body too.
It might be arguable that some of the detail and subtlety of last year’s Lateness of Dancers album gets lost in translation. Phil Cook is a versatile musician, and his switching between lead guitar and elecfric piano does allow some of the album’s textures to be explored but Mahogany Dread and Saturday Song both miss some of the more intricate guitar lines of the recordings. They are, however, taken to a very different place in this performance. This is ideally how live music should be – a different thing, urgent, impassioned, fun and very much in the moment.
One senses that these songs could be very different again next time the band go out. There is a real sense of the joy in music making and in communication – both between the musicians on stage and with their audience. As the grooves reach their loftiest heights, the players get ever closer to each other, almost in a huddle (in a manner reminscent of Crazy Horse, albeit much less ragged). When it comes to delivering the core of the songs, they look outwards again.
Taylor’s voice is another of tonight’s major revelations. Already pushed in to different spaces on Lateness Of Dancers, Taylor reveals an unexpected depth and range tonight. Sometimes this is because he is pushed into projecting further by the volume and intensity of the band, sometimes it is because he takes an interpretive, sometimes mischievous approach to his own melodies, twisting his songs into compelling new shapes. Sufferer (Love My Conqueror), for example, strange and beguiling on record, becomes turbulent and apocalyptic in this context.
Whilst the strum of an acoustic guitar remains a characteristic feature of his recordings, the acoustic is mostly jettisoned in favour of a variety of electric guitars tonight, offering a more attacking approach to rhythm playing. This probably shouldn’t seem so surprising given the extent to which Taylor has already re-recorded his own songs in very different ways (he is still revising material from the solo album Bad Debt with new band arrangements) – perhaps the evolution of the live band is an extension of this process.
Although he writes serious, spiritual, questioning songs, Taylor also seems to revel in playfulness, whether it be recontextualising his songs or in the little musical details that throw up constant surprises and delights. Yes, his music does indeed groove, but it often does so in gently unusual ways (with changing time signatures a recurrent and effective device). This is never cold or clinical, but always in service to his meaningful and malleable songs.
The show’s encore brings proceedings full circle, with Taylor and band back out on the floor of the venue, amongst a by now somewhat sweaty crowd and delivering a delightful gospel singalong take on Drum (“take the good news and carry it away”). This is music as an uplifiting experience, where an artist can sing of doubt, turbulence, home and isolation and still make it joyful – a moment in time in which band and audience are both essential participants.