HALF an hour into a spirited set, MC Taylor - the frontman, songwriter and sole constant of Durham, North Carolina’s Hiss Golden Messenger collective - recalls his five-year old daughter’s reaction to a tune he penned for her birthday.
“It’s fine,” Taylor deadpans in non-committal tones somewhat removed from fully impressed.
Taylor’s offspring must have punishingly high standards. The mundane title is the only thing not exciting about “Happy Birthday”. Alongside two further new songs aired tonight, it implies the next Hiss Golden Messenger album is set to continue the winning streak that started when Taylor uncovered his unique songwriting voice with 2010’s stark solo acoustic set Bad Debt, and which has continued uninterrupted until last year’s vibrant and earthy Hallelujah Anyhow.
Drawing equally from all points in the HGM catalogue, tonight’s stripped-down set is a return to the sparseness of the project’s early days. Due to logistical issues, only Taylor and guitarist Phil Cook are present from the full line-up familiar from the band’s two most recent visits to Leeds.
Cook thanks the crowd for listening intently to their quieter-than-usual performance but it’s difficult to feel short-changed or distracted despite the lack of a full band.
With Cook’s quicksilver lead guitar and fluid harmonies shadowing Taylor with a telepathy only endless miles on the road can bring, the duo - aided and abetted by arresting banter that veers from David Crosby’s Twitter habits, the easy availability of tie-dyed items in Woodstock, Mark Eitzel’s guitar strap troubles and the current US administration - whip up a robust, swaggering groove that is about as far removed from cosy campfire singalongs as you can get without plugging in properly.
The rich catalogue of A-list material Taylor has amassed helps in keeping the crowd on the duo’s side. He talks about tracking Blind Willie Johnson’s ghost whenever the band play Dallas before a suitably rousing take on the late gospel-blues giant’s “Latter Rain.”
Hiss Golden Messenger’s music is certainly haunted by the lingering spirit of what has at times been labelled as ‘the cosmic American music’, a rootsy concoction that effortlessly transcends the barriers between country, funk, soul, folk and rock ‘n’ roll.
Despite the audible debt to various vintage forebears, there’s not a whiff of by-the-book retro predictability to tonight’s powerful performance. Composed of mythic parables rooted deep in the soil, defiant protest, sepia-tinged storytelling and, latterly, explorations of the cost of dreams becoming reality, Taylor’s troubled yet joyous songs are distinctive enough to inspire the kind of devotion which compels people to keep listening until they have memorised the lyrics (this proves handy when Taylor forgets the opening line to “Mahagony Dread”).
Back in the olden days, this level of prowess in what is now known as the Americana idiom could have made Hiss Golden Messenger serious stars. On this compelling form, their hard-won cult hero status is set to endure and expand.