William Tyler performs Thursday as part of the Merge Records showcase at… (Randall Roberts / Los Angeles…)
AUSTIN, Texas -- Up on a hill a block away from the chaos of Sixth Street in Austin, where the crowds on a Thursday night were dense with revelers, sits St. David’s Episcopal Church. During the South by Southwest music festival, which runs through Sunday, the church hosts musicians in two different venues.
Those looking for some respite after chasing the next big thing would be advised to take a detour; it’s really quiet in there, the beer’s cheap, and there wasn't a chattering hipster or suspendered would-be troubadour to be found.
Instead, a man who goes by the name Hiss Golden Messenger played hard, bitter folk songs about work, death, love and other major junk that humans have sung about forever. Signed to the excellent folk and reissue label Tompkins Square, the man born M.C. Taylor writes songs as sharp as razors, isn’t one to hide his thoughts, and has a fan in David Bowie, who has described Taylor's music as "mystical country, like an eerie, yellowing photograph."
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The evidence of Taylor's directness came early, when he issued a dedication, in the form of a curse, to the Republican governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory. Using unprintably salty language, the singer, from Durham, then offered an addendum: “But I could also dedicate this to the new pope,” he said, causing an uncomfortable but hearty burst of laughter from the seated crowd.
He then moved into a song -- I think it was “Jesus Shot Me in the Head” -- with gentle strums of his acoustic guitar. A few bars in, though, Taylor stopped the song to correct his tuning, saying: “If I’m going to send out a curse, I want it to be in the right key.”
The comment caused another round of laughter, but carried a message with a profound truth: Given the proper harmonic attributes, music can carry dangerous messages and convey contentious truths.
An hour before at the Parish in the heart of the Sixth Street partying, another guitarist, this one an instrumentalist named William Tyler, had burned a massive amount of energy using a few guitars, a number of foot pedals and 10 gymnastic fingers. Signed to Merge Records (though his first album was released on Tompkins Square), he burned through selections from his fantastic forthcoming album, "Impossible Truth."
Introducing one song, Tyler explained that it was written about the notorious big-budget 1980 film "Heaven's Gate," which was released the day that Tyler was born -- and consequently became one of the biggest flops in movie history. That fact, he said, had cast a pall over the narrative of his life. "I grew up in the shadow of this failed movie," he said, suggesting that the connection between art and life runs deep. He finds solace, he added, that the movie is currently receiving a new acclaim after decades of ridicule.
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His was a mind-bending performance despite the voluminous crowd chattering at the Parish. Part of the Merge Records showcase, Tyler's set was sandwiched between a young all-female punk band called Barren Girls and the rising rock 'n' roll singer Mikel Cronin. Apparently the crowd wasn't interested in nuance, silence and respect for pure artistry. Were they, Tyler might have guided them into his own heavenly creation -- the 10-minute "Impossible Truth" closing song, "The World Set Free."
Laying intricate electric guitar lines over a looped acoustic run, the guitarist built a massive body of stringed sound, which ultimately peaked with a wash of distortion and reverse-tracked melodies. If sound is sonic architecture, Tyler built a cathedral at the Parish.
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