by Matt Kelchner
In front of a packed crowd Saturday night Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man On Earth, ran through a career spanning set that had more than one surprise worked in. Due to a scheduling conflict, the Swedish folk singer was moved from the Fillmore down to rock the TLA, a venue much smaller than those he has grown to for performances. Thanks to the switch to a more intimate venue, Matsson’s charismatic stage presence was amplified for a special weekend night on South Street.
Kicking things off was folk singer and multi-instrumentalist Basia Bulat. Her opening slot Saturday night marked her fourth visit to Philadelphia so far this year and judging by the crowd’s reaction, many of them were not witnessing her for the first time. This time around, Bulat was all by her lonesome on the stage.
Bulat made good use of the extra floor space. With instruments scattered around her, she worked her way song after song, switching from one to another. After starting off with the ukulele assisted “Infamous” and moving to the acoustic guitar for a pair of tunes, including “Tall Tall Shadow”, Bulat picked up her signature autoharp. Her night ended the same way in started, picking up the guitar again for “Fool” and then ending with another ukulele based song, “It Can’t Be You”.
After sprinting out and around the stage to greet his eagerly awaiting fans, Matsson settled at the center to begin his night. Following him out, albeit without a quick lap, was his band. Starting off with “Winds and Walls” off 2012’s There’s No Leaving Now, Matsson would take his fans through almost every one of his releases. All four albums were covered, as well as the Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird EP.
It was about this time a year ago that Matsson began performing with a band behind him. Coinciding with the release of Dark Bird Is Home, the simple setup of bass, drums, keys and sometimes fiddle and pedal steel gives both old songs and new fuller, rounder feelings. Despite the short time together, the full band iteration of The Tallest Man On Earth ran like a fine tuned machine.
That isn’t to say that there wasn’t some one on one time between Matsson and the crowd. He alternated several times between full band and solo. Songs like “1904” and “Burden of Tomorrow” featured the full group while others such as “Love Is All” and “Little Nowhere Towns” had just Matsson up on stage.
Right after playing one of his oldest and most well known songs, “The Gardener”, Matsson teased the crowd by dangling a secret in front of them. After describing taking some time off to go back home and getting back to songwriting, he explained that a new song would be released in the upcoming week – “Time of the Blue”, which he then proceeded to play. Shortly after came “Timothy” a song about his longtime friend and current Philly resident Timothy Showalter aka Strand of Oaks.
As the night came towards the close, “King of Spain” was played and received one of the biggest reactions from the crowd. The only way to one up one of the biggest hits from the prolific songwriter? Bringing out a best friend that he previously sang about to play on the set’s final song. With guitar in hand, Showalter walked about as Matsson and company began playing “Dark Bird Is Home”. A few verses in and the two were going head to head, at times literally, dueling guitar licks back and forth.
It only took a few moments for Matsson and his band to come back out for a two song encore that was comprised of “The Dreamer” followed by “Like The Wheel”. The Swede mentioned several times throughout the night his gratitude towards the Philly fan base for being so passionate with his music year after year and Saturday night was no different. With a few more roars The Tallest Man On Earth said his goodbyes and walked off stage, truly living up to his moniker.