Show Review: The Tallest Man On Earth @ Orpheum Theatre 5.14.15

by Ben Stas (Journalism/English), published May 26th 2015

photos by Ben Stas

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“Going electric” is a concept that has hung over the heads of folk musicians since Dylan paved the way for plugging in 50 years ago. Inevitably, artists who make their name with a minimal and largely acoustic sound face the decision to expand their sonic palette or continue to hone a stripped back approach with each successive album. For Kristian Matsson, the Swedish native who records under the moniker The Tallest Man on Earth, the choice to broaden his sound came in gradual steps rather than one fell swoop. He’s been subtly stacking instruments atop the sparse frame of his haunting 2008 debut Shallow Grave with his three subsequent full-lengths, and his latest, Dark Bird is Home, is decidedly his most orchestrated work yet. On the second night of his supporting tour, Matsson brought the latest incarnation of his sound to life with a four-piece band at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre.

The room grew increasingly packed during a pleasantly charming set from Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, a Kansas City mother-son duo with an earnest, soulful sound. Matsson took the stage at a quarter to 9 flanked by four bandmates on risers, a far cry from the barren stages he once stalked alone. This was still Matsson’s show, but his focus was clearly on showcasing a full-band sound out of the gate. Horns, keys, electric guitars, violin and percussion swelled during an opening pair of songs from Dark Bird, constructing a rich backdrop to Matsson’s singular croon when they weren’t threatening to drown him out.

The all-hands-on-deck approach of Matsson’s latest LP had a tendency to feel overstuffed on stage, sometimes pushing his most interesting qualities as a performer a bit too far off to the side. Thankfully, the performance had a strong handle on dynamics, and band members rotated in and out as the set dipped into older, sparer material. Matsson shined brightest with solo takes on “The Gardener” and others, letting his voice and intricate guitar playing woo a spellbound audience on their own. Matsson is a personality, and these more intimate moments also offered the night’s clearest glimpses of that. He playfully prowled the stage while performing and enjoyed a rapport with the crowd that made the Orpheum feel a good deal smaller than its 2,700 capacity. “You’re my hero!” one fan exclaimed between songs; “Look at your hero, he has no idea what he’s doing!” Matsson replied as he scrambled to fix a flubbed guitar tuning.

At moments later in the night, such as There’s No Leaving Now standout “Revelation Blues,” the sweep of Matsson’s accompaniment did work to his advantage, leaving an overarching impression that with some refinement and a clearer sense of where five musicians are a boon or bane, The Tallest Man On Earth as a proper band could work just fine. And full-band caveats or not, Matsson’s arresting command of a stage and obvious affection for performing made this night, too, feel largely worthwhile.

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