Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tallest Man on Earth's live set takes listeners to new heights

For someone who goes by a stage name like The Tallest Man on Earth, Kristian Matsson spends a lot of time hunched over. The Swedish folk singer has captivated audiences with his stripped back acoustic sound, so you might expect his show to have at least some sort of impressive visual element to match. But on stage, he really isn't much to look at.

His beanpole figure is stretched into an awkward gait, sometimes playing while lifting one foot off the ground. He doesn't say much on stage either, but proves he's savvy enough to play off a crowd. There's more than a few performers who likely couldn't get away with such a lack of attention to their posture, or with such a stripped back presentation. But here's the thing: Matsson is so talented it doesn't matter.

Kristian Matsson knows just what to do to hold a crowd spellbound.

To the contrary, it even works in his favor because it forces you to focus on exactly what he is doing. Many shows today invest heavily into fancy light shows, or take up half the stage with effect pedals and switchboards. Unquestionably, there have been phenomenal artists who have employed those tools to brilliant use, but Matsson excels in something that seems to be becoming a lost art. He goes on stage alone with nothing more than a guitar, a piano, and minimal stage lighting, and he captures a crowd.

It's easy to say he succeeded, if the turnout was any indicator. I make an effort to be one of the first to arrive at shows, but I arrived at the venue a full hour before the doors even opened and was already behind the eight ball. I haven't stood in a line that long since I saw Paul McCartney.

The results were certainly worth it. His set was comprised of several top selections from his latest, There's No Leaving Now, as well as fan favorites from his two previous albums. His voice is rough, raw and loud, but there's a sheer beauty to what he sings and plays.

His lyrics, read literally, often seem to lack focus or at times don't even make sense. But what he's trying to do is convey a certain mood or communicate a particular set of imagery. There's a rural, nature motif in much of his material. In fact, two of his popular songs are built around references to avian wildlife: Where Do My Bluebird Fly" and "Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird." It practically allows you to picture the Swedish countryside in your mind's eye.

His namesake song, "The Gardener," was a fan favorite, as Matsson expresses his desire to "stay the tallest man in your eyes, babe." He let the crowd take over and sing the final refrain. The lively "King of Spain" was another standout, as the opening chords had the crowd clapping along. Matsson's foot stomp during the song's final long hold note was also a great moment.

Tim Showalter from Strand of Oaks lets that fiery feeling spill forth.

Of course, the newer material didn't disappoint either. Hearing "1904" without the iconic lead guitar in the opening was certainly a change of pace for a song that I've played way too many times as it is. Hearing only the rhythm guitar was actually an improvement, I daresay. When he turned to the piano for "There's No Leaving Now," he proved his talents don't end with the six string. His playing became even more heartfelt and expressive. His chords were simple, but also melodious and heart rending.

During his encore, he played "Revelation Blues," another personal favorite from There's No Leaving Now, before closing with "The Dreamer," the defacto title track from Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird EP. The sheer elegance and beauty of the piece was truly something to behold.

Philadelphia-based Strand of Oaks kicked off the evening with a tantalizing blend of dusty rugged folk rock. Tim Showalter looked like a frontiersman with his long flowing mane, and delighted the crowd with odes to  drinking 40s and John F. Kennedy. He impressed with his mellow croon, but like Matisson proved he was capable of reaching deep and unleashing torrents of emotion.

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