It’s a bit of a Wizard of Oz–esque thing: The Tallest Man on Earth is not at all tall. OK, it’s only a shock for the hyper-literal, perhaps, or those for whom words conjure pictures. It’s the nom de guerre, so to speak, of Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson, and it is as evocative as his rootsy, swooning, swinging folk-rock and pop songs. Matsson is no longer helming a one-man show, at least not for now: To re-create the richly instrumented songs of his newly released fourth album, Dark Bird Is Home, he’s touring for the first time with a band.
As his 90 minutes onstage at the sold-out Music Hall of Williamsburg proved last night, it is the Tallest Man on Earth’s songs that are the statuesque affairs here, and that stands whether he’s alone to play them or not. It’s been a nearly decade-long trek to get to this point of his career, one rife with late-night TV performances and tours full of sold-out shows, and Matsson told his audience in Williamsburg that it all started right there in that very hall.
“Seven years ago, right outside these doors, I was on my first tour bus,” he said, his English clipped but otherwise perfect. “And I’ve been on one ever since. I will never take you guys for granted.”
Matsson kept the arrangements varied, switching from a five-piece to a quartet to a duo with a few solo songs thrown in the mix. At various times, these numbers included fiddle, saxophone, trumpet, French horn, piano, pedal steel, and lots of guitars, with Matsson swapping out axes for just about every song, ensuring that each was beautifully tuned. There was also an array of crisp drumbeats and, at times, booming bass. Matsson played through every song on Dark Bird, and peppered those newcomers with an equal amount from his past catalog. Overall, his sound can be compared to a peppy National, or a cheerier Waterboys, all rootsy and serious-seeming, but propelled by a sparkling pop energy.
Matsson performs like a wiry coil, not a tightly wound tense one — more of a busy, fluid Slinky type. His torso curls gently over his guitar, but his legs never stop bending and bowing, and his feet are equally pliable as he reaches up onto his toes, almost pulling off a Presley stance. He skips; he even hops. And he never keeps still.
There was a lot of Fifties rock ‘n’ roll flair in Matsson’s performance. Dressed in the skinniest of jeans and a dark, short-sleeved summer shirt, his beard full but neat, he danced like a Teddy Boy, and jitterbugged about in his own dance space as his band formed a semicircle behind him. At times he crooned like a bobbysocks balladeer; now and again there was a little Buddy Holly–esque cracked yelp. Still, his grainy timbre sounded even more like Dylan than his records hint at, the shadow of the man without the cynicism, a kind of Dylan gone rockabilly in his drape coat and having fun with his onstage persona.
But as much as the Tallest Man on Earth’s songs seem classic and of a genre, Matsson made sure each packed a punch and left its own unique mark. Half a dozen numbers in, his band left Matsson alone with his guitar to perform “Love Is All,” an undeniably romantic cut, his voice rising empathically to underscore his passion. And, as much as he’s a classic singer-songwriter in form, Matsson finds his own corners to explore and expose. The song was a favorite among the crowd, here stirred up after hearing many newer songs. “The Gardener” followed, sturdily strummed, and in the space after, a man’s voice bellowed loudly from up in the balcony: “I love you!”
“Thank you, dear,” replied Matsson without missing a beat. “Now, we talked about this…” More cries of “I love you” interrupted him as he stood fiddling with his guitar, bathed in a red glow: “You’re just seeing me in a pretty light,” he offered.
He ended his solo spree with “Weather of the Killing Kind,” where he built notes into complex harmonic structures. Lovely though the company was, it was obvious Matsson doesn’t actually need a band to make a bold sonic statement. Still, this one was working out very well.
“Ah, my American friends are back,” he said as his crew reassembled on stage for a run through the rollicking “Sagres,” on which violin and horns nudged the number into a sort of Tejano jig. Those American pals are Mike Lewis, who played bass guitar, saxophone, and clarinet; Mike Noyce on guitar and fiddle; Ben Lester adding piano and pedal steel guitar; C.J. Camerieri on French horn and trumpet; and drummer Zach Hanson.
For the two-song encore Matsson changed into a plain white T-shirt and, for the first time that evening, went guitar-less, leaving the playing to his band as he performed the hell out of “Dreamer.” The song had him transformed into a pop singer, grabbing at his hair and dramatically recoiling and waving his arms as the trumpet blared some rising tide of lovelorn despair behind him. It was such a big moment and high point it seemed silly to try and follow it. But he did, with the calmer “Like the Wheel,” where his band laid down their instruments to form a choir of lovely “ahhs” and harmonies that were so, well, dreamy. It was the perfect nightcap, and the perfect introduction to the Tallest Man’s new tall order of a live show.
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