Off the back of his first album in four years (and fifth in total), Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson – better known by his stage name The Tallest Man on Earth – brings his unique blend of whimsy, wistful folk to the Usher Hall.
Support for the night is provided by Julie Byrne and her synth-playing accomplice Eric Littman. After some minor technical issues, Byrne sweet-talks the audience with some slightly saccharine crowd work and a clutch of haunting melodies. Though her technical ability on the guitar is exemplary and her voice both powerful and poignant, the simple chord progressions of the sole acoustic guitar make the performance a little one-note. Littmann’s accompaniments go some way to countermanding that monotony, but he’s given too background a role to really make a noticeable difference to a pleasant but ultimately delible impression.
In any case, Byrne is merely the aperitif to tonight’s main event, and there’s no such problems with Matsson’s set. From the moment he pirouettes onto the stage, the energy levels remain high, itself an immediately stark contrast to Byrne’s more laid-back approach. He also switches instrument between pretty much every song – banjo to electric guitar to 12-string to acoustic – ensuring that the audience are always kept on the tip of their toes.
The Tallest Man on Earth might be a rather grand moniker for this slightly shorter than average entertainer, but if his stature is the first thing that strikes you, the second will surely be his frenetic dynamism. Constantly leaping about on stage – sometimes recoiling like a cat who has just spied a cucumber in their peripheral vision, at others hunching forward through the smoke machine-induced haze clutching his guitar like a bayonet – it’s impossible not to be infected by his enthusiasm.
His voice is every bit as impressive as it sounds on the record, to boot. Filling an arena the size of the Usher Hall with vocals and guitar alone is no mean feat, but he manages it effortlessly, even when straying away from the microphone to ramble through the crowd with a singalong version of I’m a Stranger Now. The back-to-back one-two of I Won’t Be Found and The Gardener are early stand-outs, while even the normally sedate Love Is All is given an injection of adrenaline for this livewire gig.
It’s perhaps the mark of a true showman that the interludes between songs are as hotly anticipated as the music itself. Belying the folksy mellow feel of his songs, Matsson is a tightly wound ball of energy even in conversation, his voice somewhere between a Heath Ledger Joker chuckle and a Bob Dylan drawl. His off-the-cuff observations paint him as someone who lives life as he feels it and calls it as he sees, albeit with a spruce of optimism and a sprinkle of whimsy. After Byrne’s earnest but all-American platitudes, it’s a breath of fresh air.
His fervour for performing is maybe the most endearing and enjoyable aspect of the evening. A rousing rendition of King of Spain towards the end of the set might just steal the show, but his two-song encore seems like it’s not quite enough for the man, and even though the house lights have come up, he’s still prancing around the stage, bowing and blowing kisses as folk head for the exits. If only all artists could deliver as towering a performance as Matsson’s moniker suggests and his example sets.