Hiss Golden Messenger Awakens Albany’s Americana Spirit, Covers Grateful Dead During Surprise Sit In


Authentic Americana spirit was alive and well in Albany on Wednesday evening at The Egg, as critically acclaimed singer/songwriter M.C Taylor and his band, Hiss Golden Messenger, unhatched an inspired, genre defying, career spanning stellar performance that fans fortunate to be in attendance won’t soon forget.

Bolstered by a surprise sit-in from Amy Helm (Levon’s daughter) on a barn-burning cover of the Grateful Dead classic “Bertha,” the intimate evening with arguably one of ‘this generation’s most relatable lyricists” was the kind of thing that left you feeling human again.  A special kind of show you walked away from thinking perhaps you just had a rare brush with true musical greatness.

If you’ve never heard of Hiss Golden Messenger before, there’s plenty of back catalog to sink your teeth into.  Now with 12 studio albums to their credit, it would be inappropriate to merely label HGM as “Indie Folk,” as they so often are.  There’s just so much more to it than what that implies. Anchored by smart, deeply personal and vulnerable, thought-provoking lyrics mixed with elements of Southern Rock, Blues, and even some psychedelic Jazz- fueled Funk, M.C Taylor was largely influenced by his friend and mentor, the late great Neal Casal. The two had planned on doing an album together before the tragic news of Neal’s passing in 2019.  That same year, Hiss Golden Messenger would earn scores of new fans when Terms of Surrender earned a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album, but ultimately losing out to Keb’ Mo’s Oklahoma; no shame in that.

Riding a solid wave of momentum, things suddenly came to a screeching halt in 2020.  When the scary and deeply fraught reality of the pandemic hit, everything changed and everyone handled ‘the unknown’ a little different. Forced into solitude for the foreseeable future, the ever-prolific and creative Taylor managed to make the most of it.  By Looking deep within and somehow turning complex feelings into songs that are highly relatable to “the everyman,” Hiss Golden Messenger ended up writing and recording a wealth of new material, releasing 3 news albums in 2021 alone; Quietly Blowing It, the timely O Come All Ye Faithful and it’s  companion album, The Sounding Joy, of which Taylor describes as “a record about community, celebration, faith and grief. It’s a holiday record. And it isn’t. Sinking myself into this music helped me a lot during some hard times.”

With live concerts now back in full effect, Hiss Golden Messenger is finally able to take those songs on the road and play for real people again and for fans looking for a musical elixir to help get over the Humpday blues, The Egg was the perfect place to be Wednesday night.  Taking part in the American Roots & Branches series, the evening kicked off with a lovely opening performance by Philadelphia-based female duo Rosali and Emily Robb, before the members of Hiss Golden Messenger would casually take the Swyer stage around 8:30pm.  All tuned up and ready to go,  the show began with “Rock Holy,” the opening track from  2018’s Virgo Fool. then promptly turned a bit funkier with “Mighty Dollar.” All warmed up now, “My Wing” and “Mahogany Dread” came next before a slight guitar strap snafu resulted in a bit of humorous story time banter. 

You see years ago, back with M.C. Taylor was just breaking in, he briefly played in a group called American Music Club, who still has a bit of a cult fowling.  During his very first show with them, in an alleged fit of drunken on stage rage, front man Mark Eitzel fired the entire band in the middle of the show. Taylor, who chuckles about it now, remarked, “Seeing your hero have meltdown.  I kinda miss those days” before the band launched into the next song, the upbeat “Jenny of the Roses” from 2017’s Hallelujah Anyhow album. 

After the next tune “Biloxi,” Taylor addressed the audience once again, saying “He woke up today and was thinking about Levon Helm,” the  legendary drummer/vocalist for The Band. “So I decided to call up my good friend Amy who I know lives nearby and see if she wanted to come to the show. She says ‘Where at?’ A place called The Egg. She says, no way, I’m playing at the Egg too!”  Indeed she was, as Amy’s Midnight Ramble Band was opening for Hot Tuna across the hall simultaneously at the The Egg’s larger Hart Theatre. By sheer coincidence or not, the undisputed highlight of the evening came next when Amy was called up to the stage to lend her vocal talents to a pair of songs, first was “Sanctuary” and uplifting song about hope and moving on which also contains lyrical references the late John Prine {“Handsome Johnny had to go, child…”). 

As incredible as that was, it was Amy’s contribution to the next song that really made the room light up, as the band then launched into the classic Grateful Dead staple, “Bertha.”  Keeping the funk-folk vibe alive, HGM would really find their groove on the next number, “Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer” from 2016’s Heart Like a Levee.  Afterwards, Taylor would joke how prior to the pandemic, none of them knew how the play a guitar, but it’s amazing what you can learn during a lockdown if you really put your mind to it.   

Taking it down a notch, “Passing Clouds” and “I’ve got a Name for the Newborn Child” were up next, followed by “Cat’s Eye Blue,” a stellar version of Bright Direction (You’re a Dark Star Now) before “Southern Grammar” would bring the show to a close.  

It’s unclear if Hiss Golden Messenger intended on returning for an encore (though one was written out ahead of time on the setlist), but after a sustained ovation from Albany’s music loving faithful, Taylor and company finally returned to the stage, commenting how he “thinks the art of the encore has slowly been lost, but that’s a discussion for another tim.” and that he could tell our thirst for one more was “real.” With that, “Way Back in the Way Back” was chosen as the final song evening, closing the book on a fantastic, well rounded, poignant night of music filled with impassioned storytelling, top-tier musicianship, a memorable sit in and even a few lighthearted laughs too.   

Hiss Golden Messenger – Lewis A. Swyer Theare at the Egg – Albany, NY – 12/1/2021

Setlist: Rock Holy, Mighty Dollar, My Wing, Mahogany Dread, Jenny of the Roses, Biloxi, Sanctuary*, Bertha,** Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer, Caledonia, My Love, Passing Clouds, I’ve Got a Name for the Newborn Child, Cat’s Eye Blue, Bright Direction (You’re a Dark Star Now), Southern Grammar

Encore: Way Back in the Way Back

*Featuring Amy Helm on Vocals
**Grateful Dead cover, Amy Helm on Vocals

Hiss Golden MessengerThe Egg