All photos: Stephanie Breijo
Kristian Matsson’s music can feel beamed in from some other place and time. It’s pure and ragged and, even after four releases as the Tallest Man on Earth, a little mysterious. That it’s actually made in a mountain region of Sweden, a place that will remain unknown to pretty much anyone reading this right now, is only appropriate.
Seeing him in concert, then, is initially a slightly jarring experience. There Matsson was on Thursday at the 9:30 Club, flesh and bone, his hair wild and greasy and jutting off in multiple directions, his face unfamiliar with any razor. And while you might envision this man of the mountains possessing a wardrobe exclusively of flannel and wool sweaters, he would appear in a tight-fitting black tank top – a wife-beater, if you’re so inclined – that displayed a chiseled physique. He looked a bit like Flea. Flea playing an extra on Breaking Bad.
Matsson gave off an anxious energy that would befit such a role too. It wasn’t a nervous energy – he seems quite comfortable in front of any crowd, unfazed by the chatter that would occasionally creep over this evening’s – but there were few moments of tranquility that define solo performances of many other troubadours, like, say, Jeff Tweedy or Sam Beam. Those moments came mostly when Matsson turned to pianette, first for the stately title track to his latest LP, There’s No Leaving Now, then the beautiful “The Dreamer” from 2010’s underrated Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird EP.
But, mostly, Matsson carried himself like a bit of a wild man. His eyes bulged during bits of furious major-chord strumming. His knees were prone to buckling at any moment, giving way to a squat and hunched back. He paced from one side of the 9:30 Club’s sizable stage to the other. He was especially fond of spiking his thumb picks to emphatically punctuate the completion of a song.
In fact, Matsson appeared to tire himself out halfway through the set, pulling up a chair and parking it for a number of songs. And while I wouldn’t begrudge Matsson a breather, anyone in the venue’s back half who had already struggled to see him – fact check: not the tallest man on earth – was largely reduced to hearing his strums float disembodied through the air.
But what guitar playing it was! Matsson cycled through several six-strings during the performance, but acoustic or electric, the effect was the same: guitar lines seemed to effortlessly unspool with the warmth of a dusty vinyl sample. Of course, it’s not effortless – the biceps on display were a testament to that – but after years on the road, Matsson can mimic that element of his records with astonishing precision.
Prior to this year, it was the only element to his records, save the occasional piano number. With There’s No Leaving Now though, Matsson has introduced some backing subtle instrumentation – drums, bass, woodwinds, multi-tracked guitars – to flesh out his sound. It’s hardly the creative leap that some were expecting after the more sonically adventurous Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird EP (we’re not getting a The Shepherd’s Dog from him any time soon), but he’s done just enough to stave off criticism of coasting in neutral.
It’s somewhat unfortunate then that Matsson opted to forgo the (slightly) fuller arrangements when bringing this material to the stage: He’s capable of pulling the songs off solo, but at some point – around forty-five minutes into his hour plus set – he begins to hit the ceiling of what he can accomplish on his own. It doesn’t help that – save a few highlights, like “Revelation Blues” and “To Just Grow Away” – There’s No Leaving Now doesn’t quite hold up to the depth and quality of its predecessors. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve heard these songs before and the their effect is wearing thinner. Either way, in the studio and on stage, it might be time for Matsson to take a few more risks.
But the audience was still still treated to a side of oldies alongside There’s No Leaving Now‘s main course. Of them, “The Gardner” and “I Won’t Be Found” seemed to elicit the warmest greetings from the crowd, growing into full-fledged sing-alongs, particularly on the former. (It shouldn’t surprise me in the age of Pandora and Spotify and iTunes’ popularity rankings that two songs from 2008’s Shallow Grave – an album that was largely slept-on at the time – would resonate so deeply with Matsson’s audience, but it was still a pleasant surprise.) The only notable omission was The Wild Hunt‘s sprightly title track, but his breakthrough record was well-represented with other popular entries (“Love is All”, “The King of Spain”).
“I can’t tell you how happy I am to be back at the 9:30,” Matsson shared early on. “That sounds like some standard bullshit, but I’m happy.”
If this was Matsson happy, I’d hate to see him on a bad him day.
Opener Strand of Oaks was entirely different story. The act is the project of Timothy Showalter, a plump and jovial fellow with a long mane of hair and full beard to match. He looked and sounded like the kind of good-natured hippy you might find working a booth at Bonnaroo, and, appropriately enough, you could actually find him once the house lights had gone up on the Tallest Man on Earth’s set perched by the merch table, not really selling his wares so much as shaking the hands of exiting patrons. “I know I kind of look like a retired dock worker from… I don’t know where,” he told the audience towards the end of his performance. “I look like a homeless guy. But I’m going to try to find my way back there.”
His self-deprecation and flighty song introductions (“I write songs about space sometimes”; “This song is about going to a ice cream parlor in Pennsylvania, but when I get there, the world has ended. That’s kind of how I do my shit”) offset what was otherwise a set of effecting and somber folk songs. Showalter makes that folk with an electric guitar and, in contrast to Matsson’s nimble picking, fills his songs with lumbering fits of jamming.