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The Tallest Man on Earth Makes Big Strides at the Pageant

Originally published on KDHX.org

Kristian Matsson takes the moniker the Tallest Man on Earth. And when he performs, you get the feeling he’s earned the name.

The singer-songwriter hails from Sweden, a country as beautiful as it is musically diverse. He’s riding high on a fourth studio album released this year, “Dark Bird Is Home,” his first non-solo album that features a backing band. It’s strange territory for someone who writes such confessional folk tunes, but a necessary evolution for a young artist in the process of carving out a signature sound.

Opener Basia Bulat led the charge, starting the set with some folk-inspired originals. Known for relying on an autoharp as her main instrument, the Canadian-born Bulat, writes love-letter ballads — inspired folk music reminiscent of some of Joni Mitchell’s best work. Her cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Ain’t No Cure for Love” was a revelation.

The turning point in her performance came during her final song, “It Can’t Be You.” She abandoned the comfort of the microphone and strolled along the edge of the stage, singing at the top of her lungs. It was a bold move for someone so soft-spoken, and it showcased the acoustic prowess of the Pageant in a way you wouldn’t think possible. The slight decrease in volume actually forced chattering groups of people to silence their conversations — you could hear a bobby pin drop. She moved to the other side of the stage, singing even louder, creating a siren call to fans who were now at full attention.

For as many devotees who claim love for the Tallest Man On Earth, the final headcount that materialized at the venue was lackluster. But a half-packed Pageant was not enough to quell Matsson’s engaging performance. Along with a some clusters of smaller amps and gear, a solitary desk chair was positioned at the mic, waiting for Matsson to take a seat. But when he took the stage, guitar in hand, he kicked the chair out of his way and sent it sliding, as though the floor were made of ice.

Dressed in all black, he opened the set with “Fields of Our Home,” the first track from his new album. Contagiously heartfelt, the folkier-than-thou music dips its proverbial toes in pop sensibilities and has more in common with groups like Lord Huron and Bon Iver. He wasted no time in connecting with fans. Matsson owned the stage, swaying from side to side, then onto his heels between chord changes, moving in time with his vital strumming.

In “Slow Dance,” he delivered some of his most honest lyrics. “In a place like this / I should never feel afraid,” he sang. Ironically, Matsson does everything but slow dance. He pranced and pirouetted in calf-skin boots, his body partially folding into a boomerang shape as he leaned into acoustic riffs, bowing to the will of the music as it moved him. He was at his best when he was alone on stage, with a single guitar and a microphone, as the band seemed to dull his charismatic luster. In fact, for all of his enthusiasm in his own work, the backing band was humdrum, taking the role of placeholder musicians and leaving the stage presence entirely in the purview of Matsson to maintain.

“It’s good to be back, it’s been three years since I’ve been here,” he reminisced with the crowd. “I was sick. But that was from not taking care of myself on tour. Now I do a better job of that. Or I have something who takes care of me better,” he admitted, laughing. He made a handful of guitar changes — a different guitar for each song — moving from acoustic to archtop to solid body, reinforcing the idea that each song is singular enough to demand its own instrument at the helm. Next came “Darkness of the Dream,” a song as rich in tone as it is in expression. His playing style is emotionally abusive — at times he croons, at others he attacks the guitar, aggressively drawing out chords. But he always returned to his base — a calm, centered performance with insightful singing.

After a brief break, Matsson reappeared for an encore to reclaim the discarded chair from earlier. “I’m gonna sit down for a few, because I look silly when I dance.” He played through two songs like this, resting his dancing shoes, but it didn’t last long and he was back at it, with signature hits from some of his older albums, like “The Gardener” and “Love Is All,” songs that touch on some of his classical music training as a child. It was a flawless, congenial set, with self-revelatory lyrics delivered with acumen and urgency.

In his final song of the evening, “The Dreamer,” he sang, “I’m just a dreamer but I’m hanging on / Though I am nothing big to offer.” But if we’re to believe that, he would have to change his stage name — and there’s no indication that’s happening anytime soon.

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