“Your troubles are gonna be so far gone… way gone… like, all the way over there.”
Photo courtesy of Cecily Rhys Perez
That was an interesting night for Tallest Man on Earth fans. They filled Shepherd’s Bush grand venue top to bottom, a venue one might find more fitting for a veteran indie band like Wilco, but not so much for a newbie of folk with two albums and the peak of his career still arguably ahead. It felt closer to waiting for an arena rock sell-out than for the guy who eventually swaggered on a few minutes late. But boy, did Kristian Mattson make the night his: the crowd were surely acting like this was arena rock, and Mattson, so unexpectedly for a man known for such understated folk songs, was happy to entertain that little fantasy. No waiting around or opening with a little song, as many of us expected (“The Wild Hunt” was absent from the night as a whole), Mattson instead opened with the immediate presence of “I Won’t Be Found” and moved through two songs of Shallow Grave like they were anthems for sharing.
And that’s how it was for a good hour of the night. The crowd were more excited to be a part of songs from The Wild Hunt and Shallow Grave than they were to hear them, and that’s the way of this man live. He seemed very much happy for the participation that came with “The Gardener”- it wasn’t much like he was up there at all. Even in reminding his crowd of his duty as a folk musician, he was playing with us: “I’m just so happy today because the new Bon Iver album leaked.” Well.
Mattson’s songs have a very different way live. At one point, he poked fun at himself for writing such “terrible terrible love songs” and having a right moan, but there’s something about taking these very isolated songs and putting them in front of hundreds of people. A song like “Troubles Will Be Gone” became very anthemic indeed, simply because people knew that little aphorism central to it: every time Mattson crooned those words, his fans would respond with the most resounding growl they could muster. It certainly felt more like affirmation than heartbreak to hear these songs, and obviously Mattson knew it; he teased the crowd here and there and it helped give the songs their communal edge. After getting his entire audience to scream “driver, please don’t go that fucking way!” he twisted “You’re Going Back” into a final verse unheard to fans and then finished off with the grand spectacle of the song’s three iconic words. He never fell flat to his arena’s trappings, even at the deepest end of the spectrum; on a song I have always felt was this man’s most heart-breaking, the burning “Love Is All,” hundreds sang the lines, “here come the tears, but like always, I let them go” and resonated his little crooning noises that followed. He smiled into the crowd appreciatively for making light of his song’s sadness.
For “The Dreamer,” an electric-guitar driven goodie from Sometimes The Blues is Just a Passing Bird, Mattson got a simple rock band setup going with one half of his native opening act Francis on bass and drums. It sounded slower and slyer but was also given, once more, a lot more spectacle. It felt like Mattson was performing a full-on rock show for a lot of the night even at his most bare, but here it was on his own initiative rather than the crowd’s. The song exploded at its choruses and made its studio version sound more filled in at the edges. “The Dreamer” really felt like it’d been coloured a rock song, so it made sense that the guys from Francis stuck around to help elevate “King of Spain,” a song given a marching drive by the way of percussion. Mattson pelted through what was arguably his crowd’s favourite moment with as much adrenalin as it had poured into it on The Wild Hunt, and eased into a quieter resolve for a preview of his new song. Here his newly found backing band came in handy, helping around Mattson on keys and leaving the song distinctly different from older material, lacking any leading guitar but sounding quirkier and somewhat cooler than piano ballad “Kids on the Run.”
All this spectacle became a little daunting; song after song, until his show proper was done with “Thrown Back at Me,” a duet with the softer-voiced Amanda Bergman. Mattson then jumped into the crowd for a few squeeze hugs, bowed graciously and left to thunderous applause. It was interesting, then, that his encore came so understated. With all the hugs and blown kisses said and done, Mattson got his crowd hushed for the less resounding “Drying of the Lawns.” Finally worn out from having played along with the crowd all night, Mattson took to his stool (earlier pushed over in the excitement of his new song) and played until the crowd was drop-dead silent. It felt like the perfect tribute to a musician who sounds, on his albums, like a man alone. And so it was all the better when finale “Kids on the Run” didn’t turn into the huge, bolstering piano ballad it could’ve been. Mattson here took up his banjo, much to the crowd’s delight (and his own- he seemed truly aghast at how hard it had been to get this instrument through British customs all these years), and played the song on the instrument it had been created. It sounded a wholly different song, with “we’re still kids on the run!” sang more quaintly, and perhaps more fittingly for the send-off it became. On a night dominated by the surprising stage presence of a rugged, teasing Kristian Mattson, he still remained the man behind these love songs. The Tallest Man on Earth he may be, walk upon the river he may, but his swagger will never quite match his song.
I Won’t Be Found
Troubles Will Be Gone
Tangle In This Trampled Wheat
Where Do My Bluebirds Fly?
You’re Going Back
King of Spain
Love Is All
Thrown Right At Me
The Drying of the Lawns
Kids on the Run