Intimate Communion: The Tallest Man on Earth astounds at the TLA

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The Tallest Man on Earth | photo by Jeremy Zimmerman | jeremy-zim.com
The Tallest Man on Earth | photo by Jeremy Zimmerman | jeremy-zim.com

“I think the first time I played here in Philadelphia — that was in 2008, opening for Bon Iver at the Trocadero — I was only this tall,” joked Kristian Matsson halfway through his set, motioning his hand at waist height. “Everyone was chattering on as they do during my set, but afterwards you were all so kind. You’re always so kind.” Matsson — known to most as The Tallest Man on Earth —has likely not grown physically all that much in the intervening eight years, the Swedish folkster’s musical career has certainly grown to towering proportions.

With a scheduling conflict moving Saturday night’s show from the Fillmore to the Theatre of Living Arts, ticketholders and new attendees alike were treated to a much more intimate look at a prolific songwriter who has previously played rooms as large as the Tower. It takes a master showman to not only scale up to massive venues, but also shrink down and command the small stages, as well. Luckily, Kristian demonstrated his effortless ability to command a stage regardless of size. I knew the deed was possible, after seeing him as one of the headliners at Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival last summer, but seeing his trademark grin illuminate such a small room was an absolutely magical treat.

Armed with an arsenal of guitars, Matsson worked his way through a stacked setlist — with four studio albums to choose from, there were plenty of hits to be trotted out, but compiling such a large set left plenty of room for deep cuts. Twice during the evening, Kristian’s band retired from the stage and left him by his lonesome. The Dylan-esque Swede played songs of forlorn love and romance left in media res. After playing fan-favorite “The Gardener,” Matsson stopped and asked “Can you keep a secret?” to which someone immediately heckled “No!” “Alright, next guitar please,” The Tallest Man retorted, beckoning his guitar tech. After the audience sufficiently begged for it, he relented and said, “I play ‘The Gardener’ a lot. I know how to play ‘The Gardener,’ I like ‘The Gardener.’ This song? I have practiced it many times, but I still don’t know what I’m doing — it’s called “Time of the Blue” and it will be released next week.” Sitting down on a chair, he was uncharacteristically still from his usual prancing and strumming as he intensely focused on the intimate new song. Whether the track will be a one-off or the beginning of the next album cycle is yet to be determined, but either way it’s a departure from the swelling, orchestral nature of the band-backed tracks from 2015’s Dark Bird Is Home.

The Tallest Man on Earth with Strand of Oaks | photo by Jeremy Zimmerman | jeremy-zim.com
The Tallest Man on Earth with Strand of Oaks | photo by Jeremy Zimmerman | jeremy-zim.com

But a new song wasn’t the only surprise Matsson had up his sleeve. Later in the set, he detailed the story behind Dark Bird cut “Timothy,” which is actually about Philly’s own Timothy Showalter — frontman of Strand of Oaks. The pair are fast friends, both attempting to learn the piano as children, before being told that the guitar might be a better fit. And we can see how that’s turned out for both of them. “Timothy, we’re waking up,” Matsson crooned “to a healing mind.” At that point in the evening, I wasn’t sure if Showalter was in attendance or not, but the gesture was sweet either way.

The first song of the encore — “The Dreamer” — removed any doubt about Showalter’s whereabouts, with Matsson introducing him as “My best friend, Timothy Showalter.” While the track built slowly, Showalter rocked back and forth, cradling a Telecaster in anticipation. Then, as the song rose to crescendo, he ripped into a massive solo, just as big as any on HEAL. As “The Dreamer” lengthened into an extended jam session, Showalter and Matsson went head-to-head, both grinning and leaning into their respective guitars as they lived their childhood dreams, together.

As the two hugged and Showalter left the stage, the audience was clapping with a fervor double that of the appreciation that they’d already been showing throughout the night. The packed house at the TLA again proved to be a more-than-kind audience to a singer/songwriter that has only ever done right by Philadelphia in the past, this time going above and beyond to honor our fair city and it’s local music heroes. As The Tallest Man only continues to grow taller in metaphorical stature, it’s heartwarming to see him be able to stoop down and touch hearts on a very real level.

Setlist:

    1. Wind and Walls
    2. 1904
    3. Fields of Our Home
    4. Burden of Tomorrow
    5. The Wild Hunt
    6. Darkness of the Dream
    7. Love Is All (Solo)
    8. I Won’t Be Found (Solo)
    9. The Gardener (Solo)
    10. Time of the Blue (Solo, new song)
    11. Sagres
    12. Revelation Blues
    13. Timothy
    14. Thousand Ways (Solo)
    15. Little Nowhere Towns (Solo)
    16. Where Do My Bluebird Fly (Solo)
    17. King of Spain
    18. Dark Bird is Home

      Encore:

    19. The Dreamer (with Strand of Oaks)
    20. Like the Wheel

 

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