When they announced the solo act Kristian Mattson, a.k.a. The Tallest Man On Earth, was playing Town Hall, I was a little nervous. Really? Town Hall? He seemed so under-the-radar to me, I was worried no one would come. I'd barely seen any interviews with him in the media and every time I mentioned him to music friends, I seemed to be starting from scratch. I only stumbled on his name in a UK magazine and after purchasing his last album online on the spur of the moment it became my last-minute favorite record of 2010. But was anyone else waiting to see him in concert? I would have expected a much smaller place like Mercury Lounge for his return to New York.
Instead of a half-empty venue filled with old folkies, the NPR/Richard Thompson set (a.k.a. me), Town Hall was sold out for two nights and filled mostly with young people who had probably discovered TMOE online just like me, in an organic style that made it seem he was their own personal discovery. A 29-year-old Swede, Mattson sings with an Americana twang, records in English, posts songs online and paired with indie labels like Dead Oceans to get the word out. And just like that, he can reach the world. Here he is trotting the globe and performing in New York the very week that his excellent new album There's No Leaving Now debuts at #35 on the Billboard album charts. (Sure, these days you can top the charts with less than 100,000 copies in sales some weeks, but still... pretty great.)
I haven't anticipated seeing a new act in concert this much in years and Mattson did not disappoint. He prowled out of the wings like a cat and it was immediately clear he had presence to spare. Mattson would not stand at the mike and declaim songs with the faux modest demeanor of a folkie. He is a performer and presumably years of dealing with rowdy crowds in bars has paid off. The stage was filled with five guitars standing in a row on one side (electric and acoustic, each tuned in a different manner) and a piano on the other he assayed once or twice. Mattson soaked up the applause, somehow managing to look genuinely touched and as if it were his due at the same time.
He immediately launched into "To Just Grow Away," the opening track of his new album, and we were off. Mattson's voice boomed and swooped throughout Town Hall, merging perfectly with his guitar. He played with aplomb, easily navigating the annoying whoops of audience members who think any quiet moment is the perfect chance to belt out their approval. There isn't an artist alive who wants people to bellow and shout while they're performing -- they're onstage for a reason -- but still yahoos think they must be heard. It was literally one of the most annoying crowds in memory. Kids constantly brandished cell phones to take pictures because of course if you're not recording an event it hasn't really happened. Guards roamed the aisles with flashlights, repeatedly getting people to desist. It was a shame they didn't flash the face of the schmuck five rows behind me who spent the entire show shouting out "Ridiculous!" at the top of his voice after every musical passage and then mocking the people around him who were trying to listen by saying, "It's a concert!" Yes, but not a Bon Jovi concert at a football stadium.
I was thoroughly impressed by Mattson's poise throughout. He has the showman's gift for knowing how to ride the wave of audience emotion, pausing just long enough on a held note before launching into another passage or raising his vocals a notch to quiet the chatter. Interestingly, his two forays onto the piano silenced the crowd almost completely. Why does acoustic guitar equal rowdy banter but a piano relative silence? At the end of his first piano number, he pointedly said, "Thank you for listening." The yahoo behind me didn't get the message.
None of those distractions prevented Mattson's performance from being memorable. Song after song tumbled out of him, including many of the songs on his new album, like upbeat peak "1904" (Mattson had a playful time with his enunciation on that one) to crowd favorite "King Of Spain," heard here on a live performance on the UK show hosted by Jools Holland. (I couldn't find a live performance or video of songs from his new album but you can hear more of his work on his MySpace page.)
What I was most impressed by after the sheer songwriting talent, singing and playing was his assured presence. Mattson displayed a wry wit and self-awareness that was striking and funny and wholly entertaining. In the middle of one number, he would suddenly fall into a chair placed towards the back of the stage almost as if he'd just discovered it for the first time. A photographer taking a picture became a moment of weird discovery as if he was puzzled to realize people were watching him. He'd wipe his face with a towel and then toss it away with mock disdain. When he used a pick, Mattson invariably tossed it aside in anger at the end of each number in a bit that became more amusing every time. This is an artist with real presence and one you immediately sense you'll be seeing again in concert five years, ten year, twenty years from now.
And of course at the heart of it are the songs. It's easy and true to tag Mattson with the Dylan-esque tag. But this isn't the Dylan of worldly affairs, but the romantic, funny Dylan, the one who can savor love but knows it's slipping away even as he's enjoying it. Mattson's wife Amanda Bergman performs under the name Idiot Wind, just to make the Dylan reference complete and she joined him on the final number, "Thrown Right On Me" (from his most recent EP Sometimes The Blues Is Just A Passing Bird). Their voices blended beautifully.
His new album There's No Leaving Now is a step forward sonically. Where his first two albums -- Shallow Grave and The Wild Hunt -- featured simply Mattson and his guitar, the new record features just a tad more instrumentation and the occasional double tracking so Mattson can accompany himself. Drums, clarinet and the like all make an appearance, but it's a modest one. It's still essentially Mattson alone with his powerful, growling voice that can soothe and command and plead in equal measure. And that's what we found onstage, a man who can fill a hall with his voice and guitar and stop your heart.
I haven't lived with the new album enough yet but it will certainly be on my best of the year list. I tend to recommend Dylan fans start with The Wild Hunt but you can't go wrong wherever you start. Because I know after a few listens you'll buy both other albums and then the EPs and then start wondering when The Tallest Man On Earth will be coming to your town. Don't miss him if you get the chance. If you can hear a performance like this and not want to hear more, why then, we've got nothing to say to each other.
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.
Note: Michael Giltz is provided with free tickets to shows with the understanding that he will be writing a review. He also received a free copy of the album.