Southern Stars Fell on The Independent

Hiss Golden Messenger w/ Phil Cook

Nov. 11, 2014

The Independent, San Francisco

Tuesday night’s scheduled show at The Independent was delayed. The blockbuster country singer Garth Brooks – newly on Twitter – had played a surprise show at the venue at 5:30pm, and the staff needed to clean up.

It was an appropriate preface to the Southern acts who played that night on Divisadero Street – the  folk rock group Hiss Golden Messenger, from Durham, N.C.,  were touring with Phil Cook (one-third of the psychedelic-ish folk band Megafaun), from the same city).

And Phil Cook, opening alone onstage with his electric guitar, was quick to lay down some rules. For North Carolina had arrived, and procedural instructions were necessary.

“First,” he said, “be ready to accept a high-five from a stranger at any point in time. Don’t be afraid of the high-five.

“And second,” he said, “if your hip chooses to start going back and forth, you’re going to want to tell your brain that’s OK.”

Phil Cook is a man to whom most people – even those who don’t write music reviews – immediately itch to apply similes. His manner is incredulous and amused, like all of this is a circus, and he’s got comically curly hair whose bouncing seems to operate in a realm adjacent to but not within our usual physics. One is tempted to compare him to some breed of sheepdog, but canine comparisons are generally diminutive, and Cook is not a musician to be reasonably diminished (even if he occasionally plays songs with such titles as “I Like Chicken Pie”).

Cook, to our fortune, didn’t disappear after his opening set – he stuck around to play guitar and keyboard with Hiss Golden Messenger, who performed a muscularly beautiful set. Frontman/lead vocalist/lead guitarist M.C. Taylor, long of limb and decisive of mustache, used to front a San Francisco-based indie rock band, although he seems to have fully physically and mentally committed to his adopted North Carolinian habitat.

“It seems like another lifetime ago, but I did a lot of living here in this city,” he said. “Morale seems a little low, but I feel good here.”

The band’s already robust guitar/bass/drum fleet got extra charge from Matthew Douglas’ saxophone and, halfway through the set, some trumpet from Taylor’s brother Graham. Hiss Golden Messenger’s most recent album, Lateness of Dancers, came out in September, and its most enchanting contributions to the set were the hopeful mournful “Mahogany Dread” and the suave smug “Southern Grammar.” Other standouts included “Call Him Daylight,” which opened the set and left no room for questions; and “Blue Country Mystic,” which Taylor said was written about “a little town called Pittsboro, North Carolina” – a town to which many folks (including this reviewer) shouted recognition.

For the encore, the band played an extended but unfortunately finite cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” a country classic that we can now attest needs only the Taylor treatment and Douglas’ saxophone to attain certain mythological significance. Then the band hopped off the stage and into the middle of the floor to acoustically play “Drum” among their, by now, disciples.

“Take the good news,” sang Taylor, “and carry it away.” You could choose not to sing along, but you’d be on the psychopath spectrum.