Former Montezumas frontman, Kristian Matsson now performs as The Tallest Man on Earth. The man who has made a career of performing with a single instrument and a voice has booked a two-night residency at London’s Union Chapel. In the calm glow of the chapel at sundown, one man proves you can captivate a congregation of 800.
What kind of artist would you expect to see that has promotional tea towels included in his merchandise? What kind of audience does he expect to want to buy them? It seems such a wholesome suggestion. As does huddling up on wooden church pews, with steaming mugs of hot drinks (alcohol is banned in the main venue as it is still used as a sacred space for worship). It’s so very hygge, so very Scandinavian. As is The Tallest Man on Earth, aka singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson who is, it has been pointed out, is not that tall. Perhaps the mention of height is a nod to his Swedish roots?
Grey blue beams of light pool together on stage, as the haunting strains of clunky piano and a soft voice leak into the hall. The stage is plunged into darkness, then white lights raise as Matsson takes his time bowing forward over the lip of the stage to rapturous applause. He opens with To Just Grow Away, his head shakes as he sings, his whole body quaking with energy. Following with Like the Wheel, I Won’t Be Found, and early career song The Gardener, he continues to sing with great emphasis on the lyrics, throwing back his head in rapture, he is hypnotic to watch. The music, though simple is really just a backdrop for his voice. At times, on tunes such as Revelation Blues when he is only using the volume of his voice to express emotion, with very few other changes. By contrast, on newer songs like Forever Is a Very Long Time he holds long powerful notes even whilst he swings his guitar strap over his head to change instruments or take flight around the stage, the note is not lost.
Matsson frequently changes instruments in his set, alternating between acoustic and electric guitars, a banjo, or seemingly spontaneously choosing to sit at the piano. The staging is simple and leaves him free to use the stage to his advantage. It is dressed only with a semi-circle of light boxes which cast hazy shafts of light that range from white grids catching the shadows of falling dust, to the dying embers of firelight, and the spectrum colours of the sunrise. As Matsson finishes songs he backs away from the lights to be handed a change of instruments from a crew member in the pulpit like a literal heaven sent gift.
Addressing the audience during one these breaks he warns, “If you’ve been to a show before, you know what to expect…. A bunch of sad songs and, like half of a love song – but this isn’t one!” as he plays the sparse, pared back Time of the Blue. Playing the banjo, he only picks out a pulse beat, turning it into a completely different sounding instrument. At the end of the song when the applause fades in preparation for the next song Matsson draws his right hand up, pick gripped between his fingers ready to start playing and a silence falls. The entire crowd stare, breath held in anticipation. Matsson stands stock still and starts to laugh a little, raising his hand ready to begin repeatedly teasing the audience who, now mesmerised do not make a sound. He breaks the tension, “You guys are happy, I’m happy too. It might not seem like it, because of my songs”, resetting his position and dropping it again in the perfect stillness, “I’m just doing this for me now, because it’s pretty amazing! Thank you for being so quiet.”
The stage is bathed in deep red for new song Somewhere in the Mountains, Somewhere in New York, following swiftly on without dramatic pause is 1904. The long, end note of 1904 is finished not by Matsson, but by the clear ringing voice of an audience member and a wave of supportive laughter from the rest of the crowd and from the stage. At this point, Matsson could sing pure gibberish and the quality of his voice and his fascinating phrasing could keep listeners gripped, his rendition of classic Say A Little Prayer is all the proof needed for this theory.
Encouraged by the spontaneous audience participation Matsson coaches the crowd on how to join in with I’m a Stranger Now. He jokes that he wants the help just so he can test the acoustics of the 19th Century chapel. This request for audience participation isn’t self-indulgent, rather it is immersive. He unplugs his guitar, and walks off stage still singing the refrain. The voices of the crowd break like waves and the faint chords of his muted guitar can barely be heard floating above.
Back on an acoustic trip, Matsson jangles out some Dylanesque tunes; Criminals and Thrown Right at Me, then easing down again with the gentle chiming guitar of Then I Won’t Sing No More, before the big song of the night his galloping and rhythmic number King of Spain. Someone finishes his note of the song for the second time in the evening, creating giddy laughter around the hall. Matsson remarks, with a chuckle, “thanks for helping me finish that word, I forgot it.”
Announcing his last song with a simple nod and a “Good night”, comes bittersweet song The Dreamer. The true finale comes after a mass standing ovation and flat-out demand from the crowd that Matsson returns. Their reward is Matsson returning victoriously to the stage, allowing the audience to turn the cacophony of applause into a clap along to The Wild Hunt and Kids on the Run with a little reminder of his Swedish-ness thanks to a seamless work-in of ABBA’s Winner Takes it All. If the Scandinavians are responsible for coining a word for the feeling of warmth, cosiness and communion, The Tallest Man on Earth is now its greatest proponent. The songs may be a little sad, but the performance is pure joy.
Photos by Paul Lyme, live review by Sarah Sievers of Tallest Man On Earth at Union Chapel September 24th 2018.