The Tallest Man on Earth deals in the sort of folk you might have heard in the back of a Greenwich Village coffee shop half a century ago. Over the course of three albums and several EPs, the singer-songwriter had assembled an impressive discography full of the sort of songs that you feel as though you’ve known your whole life – his is the sort of music that is reassuring in its familiarity. This year, however, Kristian Mattson – the man behind the moniker – looked to broaden his horizons with fourth album Dark Bird is Home. The record boosted some of the most expansive arrangements we have thus far heard from the Swede and while not quite his Dylan in ’65 moment, the record has still managed to spark debate amongst his fans – not all of whom feel this evolution is a good thing.
The darkened Vicar St stage is furnished with instruments – a hint as to what we might expect from the evening’s show. Mattson is alone when he appears on stage just before 9:30 however. Dressed all in white, he paces the stage, gimlet-eyed, sizing up the crowd with only his electric guitar strapped to his chest. He waits for the rumble of the crowd to quieten to a whisper before he begins plucking a few shimmering arpeggios and launches into a reverb-drenched rendition of old folk standard ‘Moonshiner’. The song – which dates back to the 1800’s – is dragged into the 21st century with a unique guitar arrangement and proves a fine showcase for Mattson’s distinctive, yearning vocals.
After this startling opener, he is joined by his five piece band and they waste no time in rattling through a number of tracks from Dark Bird is Home, showcasing the record’s muscular sound and folk-rock leanings. The closing of each song is met with warm applause but it is hard to shake the feeling that many of the audience are not yet familiar with the new material and are thus not quite as engaged as they might be.
It is only when the band disappear for a short acoustic interval that the gig truly sparks to life. Mattson teases the crowd with opening notes of ‘Love is All’ and when he finally gives into the cheers, it results in the first great big singalong of the night. He follows this with ‘The Gardener’ which finds plenty singing the words back to him verbatim and swaying from side to side.
One of the highlights of the gig is ‘Little Nowhere Towns’, another one of the newer songs, which sees Mattson lay down his guitar for the first time since he’s taken to the stage and seat himself at the piano. Backed only by some electric guitar flourishes, the song shows that Mattson need not be confined to his reputation as a guitar slinger.
The only low points come when Mattson attempts to wed some of the songs from his back catalogue with new beefier arrangements. Formerly gentle songs such as ‘The Great Hunt’ and ‘Revelation Blues’ lose some of their charm with cluttered arrangements obscuring the
Despite the solemn nature of many of his songs, Jansen’s humorous introductions and asides show that he doesn’t take himself overtly seriously. He hails from Sweden but there are only faint traces of his Scandavian lineage as he jokingly explains the supposed meaning of each song (generally being described simply as being about “stuff”).
The crowd – which is a lot rowdier and boisterous than one might expect to be at an understated troubadour’s performance – repeatedly call for the ‘King of Spain’ and when their cries are finally answered with the penultimate song of the regular set, they go wild. It is well past eleven when Mattson finally calls it a night with still calling for more. The question of whether Mattson fares better when taken alone or with his band has still to be decisively answered but the vast majority of those in attendance at Vicar St will have gone home happy.