Kristian Matsson AKA The Tallest Man on Earth bounds on to Albert Hall’s lofty stage and takes the generous applause for a few moments before picking up the banjo. Four years ago, on the same stage and accompanied by a full band, the Swede opened with Dylan’s ‘Moonshiners’, perhaps as a wry nod to the constant comparisons he was receiving to the legend. The association appears to have abated to a degree and this time we’re treated to ‘Waiting for My Ghost’, from his latest record I Love You. It’s a Fever Dream.
Significantly this evening though, he is sans band. This is going to be interesting then; although his records are imbued with a spartan fragility, they are often subtly layered with piano and harmonica inflections accompanying the guitar driven melodies. Within seconds the song grinds to a halt and he quietly says to himself “what a nightmare” as he has to re-tune. It may be a bit of an inauspicious curtain-raiser but once the issue is fixed, what transpires is one of the most enjoyable performances of the entire year.
The new record provides the spine of the evening, but we dip into pretty much all his previous releases over a hefty twenty-two song set list, and the rolling ‘To Just Grow Away’ follows. By the time the enthusiastic crowd demonstrate their fan credentials by singing along to 2008’s ‘The Gardener’, Matsson is dripping with sweat; this may be folk music in tone and instrumentation, but it is delivered with sprightly panache for almost two hours and Matsson appears to be fortified by the crowd, possessing the moves of a heavy metal guitarist during the song’s acoustic breaks.
The new album is a slight change in direction for the Swede. The songs are warmer and the vocals softer. Perhaps that’s why the Dylan comparisons have eased off, but the result is delightful and ‘What I’ve Been Kicking Around’ is the perfect example of this gentler cadence and when he sings “Some of your honey in my hand, and a silver dollar in my shoe. Time had never been so bold”, there’s conviction in the positivity.
Four years ago, songs like ‘Revelation Blues’ utilised the full band to create broad, expressive arrangements. Tonight’s rendition feels much more intimate but certainly no less impactful before the bonhomie of ‘I’ll Be A Sky’ maintains the warmth of the entire evening.
Most of the best moments from each Tallest Man on Earth record are performed this evening but it is perhaps significant that only ‘Little Nowhere Towns’ from Dark Bird is Home is aired. The album emerged following Matsson’s divorce and also addressed the death of a family member; material apposite to the vibe of the evening then and probably wise to steer clear of.
These wonderful musical moments are enhanced by the partisan crowd in attendance, although they’re not always as successful as intended. “You look like a normal person with your sweater but you sounded like a monster”, Matsson says to describe a fan’s singing contribution, providing moments of hilarity to boot!
Despite not playing the title track off the new album, the record’s best moment, the evening ends in particularly strong fashion, with album highlights coming thick and fast. Although ‘King of Spain’ will always be a raucous affair, ‘I’m a Stranger Now’ could begin to rival it. We do end on some pathos however with the beautiful ‘There’s No Leaving Now’. Performed on piano with the lights contributing to a wonderfully atmospheric ambiance, it’s a reminder that we can make comparisons of this Swede all we like, but his lyrics are unique and they connect with all who are touched by them.
Words & Images by Iain Fox