Kristian Matsson, the title character in The Tallest Man on Earth is about as minimal a performer as one can get, bringing himself and an acoustic guitar onto the venue’s cavernous stage, which was empty except for a chair, a microphone and a Yamaha piano sitting off to the side. There was so much open space that it would dwarf even…well, you can complete that thought for yourself.
But Matsson was undaunted, belting out songs in his husky voice – think Tom Waits or Bruce Springsteen, were they a tenor – and working the crowd with admirable charisma and charm.
His music is hooky and infectious, particularly “1904″ from his 2012 album There’s No Leaving Now, which had the whole hall joyously singing along. (Later in the set, “King of Spain” from 2010′s The Wild Hunt had a similar effect). Matsson is also a nimble guitar player, a trait that possibly doesn’t get discussed enough – his rapid-fire, precise finegrpicking style recalls folk fore-bearers like John Fahey and current aficionados like M. Ward. Seeing it in performance, while Matsson also has other matters to attend to – singing, swaggering – his six-string skill became all the more impressive.
Over time, the hour-plus set tended to drift in a somewhat similar mode – short of his after-hours piano bar brooders like “There’s No Leaving Now” (which owes a lot to Waits’ Closing Time), it was mostly Tallest Man’s trademark sprightly acoustic anthems. But Matsson overcame that sameyness by forging an immediate, endearing rapport with the crowd, leaning in to give group hugs to the front row and reciting the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song on request (“It’s how we learned to speak English in Sweden.”)
Opening the night was an impressive performance from Philadelphia’s Strand of Oaks, playing its first hometown gig since the release of the excellent new full-length Dark Shores. Singer and songwriter Tim Showalter has in the past approached the Oaks live show in a variety of ways – four-piece rock outfit, atmospheric three-piece backed by a drum machine, one-man-band triggering samples and ambiance, solitary folksinger. His accompaniment at Union Transfer was drummer Chris Ward (also of Pattern is Movement), whose emphatic backbeat loosens the music and performance up tremendously.
In other Oaks incarnations, Showalter is more of a stand-and-deliver type, a solitary man with a powerful voice belting out heartrending, emotional melodies, but not necessarily venturing around the stage. In Ward, he has a person driving the rhythm who he is able to play off of – Showalter shuffled to “Satellite Moon,” headbanged to “Sterling,” danced, interacted with the audience and embraced the role of rock frontman. It even seemed that he had cut down on his use of effects pedals, preferring a smaller and more direct bank of tones and sounds. If Dark Shores feels less enchanted with mystery and mythology than Oaks’ 2010 record Pope Killdrgagon – “Dark Shores” the song is exceptionally poppy – this performance shows why that is important. Showalter, less focused on mood and ambiance, was free to rock out to the audience’s delight; the songs also lent themselves well to Ward’s embellishments, and his drum solo on “Diamond Drill” packed a wallop. Those in attendance who weren’t already familiar with Oaks quickly became so, and the enthusiastic cheers from the capacity crowd indicated they liked what they heard.