Tallest Man on Earth's 2015 release Dark Bird Is Home takes some wrestling. At first, it gleams like a poppy, Tom Petty-esque piece of cowboy lonesomeness — the kind that's made right by a night on the highway and a pastoral hill from which to look out and write songs. But there is a greater depth of sadness at work on the latest album from Kristian Matsson.
Dark Bird Is Home is a record Matsson called "almost too personal." It deals heavily with the death of a loved one and Matsson's heartbreaking divorce from Amanda Bergman. Recorded in a slew of isolated sessions across the rural countryside of Matsson's native Scandinavia, Dark Bird Is Home was conceived and wrought in solitude.
All of these factors make Dark Bird Is Home an incongruous focus for the Tallest Man on Earth's first ever full-band tour, and yet, at his headlining gig Friday night at First Ave, the 32-year-old singer-songwriter pulled it off with the charm and aplomb of his album's first impression.
Matsson is adored by his following, and this no doubt stems from his welcoming take on human tragedy. As he took the stage, he bounced between the monitors, waving and bowing to the capacity crowd. He took to the mic for a few fumbled humiliations, and went right into the new record, starting with the spare "Fields of Our Home."
The adulating attendees sang along, matching every grimace in Matsson's straining face, overjoyed to be mimicking the anguish. Alone on the mic, Matsson was a consummate singer-songwriter — the kind Hozier, in his 6-plus-feet of boggish Irish brooding, could only hope to attain. In the pink light of the venue, Matsson bleat out with an injured plea, one that both disarmed and enchanted. With a lean, naked arm strumming his guitar through "Slow Dance" and "1904," Matsson could've held dominion over the room with no band at all.
But when the band — which included Bon Iver/P.O.S affiliate Mike Noyce, who also recorded harmonies on Dark Bird Is Home — did swing in, it washed away the forlorn spectre of Matsson's solo work. The transition from "Singers" to the full-bore jamboree of "Darkness of the Dream" was elastic and infectious. In one dramatic sweep, Matsson burst his heartbreak through a kaleidoscope, the thumping drums and violin adding a rustic jubilation to what had been a soliloquy for the sensitive Swede.
There was no guilt in gingerly white-guy dancing along to Matsson's pain. Through the drawl of "Timothy," "Love Is All," and "The Gardener" to the spiritual thwack of "Thousand Ways" and "Revelation Blues," Matsson's charisma masked the painful source material, repackaging the raw emotions into an instantly resonating performance. "Sad songs are the only ones I know," Matsson apologized, but by that point, it was impossible to feel any despair in the room.
"Little Nowhere Towns" served as the de facto set-ender, though there was no discernable break before the encore. It was the first time that we saw he multi-instrumentalist touch anything other than his guitar. He preened magnanimously while tickling out the song's delicate line of keys. It made First Ave feel like a 10-foot-10 room. Though the intimacy led Matsson to apologize for putting the audience through "divorce song after divorce song," the crowd was blissed to listen.
Critic's' bias: Sometimes, I like going to shows where I'm only cursorily interested in the main act so that I can try to come up with an opinion on them mid-review. This was one of those cases.
Notes on the opener: Lady Lamb took the stage alone, no band, in the pitch black, and totally lost the audience, who took six or seven songs to realize how great her performance was. Aly Spaltro is immutably fucking awesome.
Her set was a very toned-down version of her 2015 album After, showcasing just how voluminous and booming her voice can be without any accompaniment. The audience — who chatted idly through her set — missed a flamethrower of a show. Also, see my April feature on Lady Lamb here.
The crowd: Eighteen-plus, so full of chatty idiots. But when Matsson came on stage, he gave them shushing orders that echoed throughout the crowded room for the rest of his set. It was incredible to see how much command he had over the absolutely packed First Ave floor. People were hushing each other during the encore.
Overheard in the crowd: "I can't believe she's only 19!" — drunk bro re: Aly Spaltro, who is 26.
Random notebook dump: Kristian Matsson is 5'7". Not very tall, IMO.
Fields of Our Home
Darkness of the Dream
Love Is All
The Wild Hunt
Little Nowhere Towns
Where Do My Bluebird Fly
King of Spain
Dark Bird is Home
Like the Wheel