“I get nervous before shows; I walk in circles backstage,” Kristian Matsson told his L.A. audience last Tuesday night under the grandiose, starry ceiling of the Wiltern Theatre. The performance also coincided with the release of Matsson’s (who records under the name The Tallest Man On Earth) new album, There’s No Leaving Now.
The bearded duo Strand of Oaks opened the show with soft electric guitar, pulsing drums, and plenty of down-to-earth charm. (Singer Tim Showalter mentioned his wife and hometown of Philadelphia twice.) But the pair also had a quirky side, as evidenced by Showalter’s lyrics about sleeping pills and visiting a post-apocalyptic ice cream stand.
A small man with a giant presence, Matsson entered the stage with his hands in the air, causing the crowd to release a cheer of anticipation. It’s one thing to be mesmerized by Matsson’s recordings, but another entirely to watch him live. Despite my expectations after listening to There’s No Leaving Now, Matsson took to the stage solo, but the performance didn’t lack energy. From the frenzied, foot-stomping dance of “King of Spain” to the quivering yells of “On Every Page,” Matsson exuded dynamism. Upon finishing a song — often by throwing his pick to the ground — the singer paced about with mumbled “thank yous” and musings. As he sat at the piano for “There’s No Leaving Now,” he told the crowd, “I’m going to play this weird thing now,” and then began the eloquently lyrical title track.
After a particularly ethereal rendition of “Where Do My Bluebird Fly,” Matsson stated, “That was not real.” He went on to explain that after spending much time with the ballad from his 2008 album, Shallow Grave, he had moved on from being the “pissed off” emotional kid he once was. In fact, that’s really what There’s No Leaving Now is about; a shift from an outpouring of despair to the prospect of happiness, elucidated in the lyrics of “On Every Page,” where Matsson sings: “I drop the game of throwing knives alone / There must be marks on every tree / From the past to our home.”
At the end of a heavily demanded encore, Mattson finished the performance with a tender duet of “Thrown Right at Me,” from 2010’s Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird, alongside wife and fellow singer/songwriter Amanda Bergman. The intimacy as the two sang the lyrics, “I’ll find just that friend who can see, all this weird beauty, thrown right at me,” concluded the show with genuine warmth. As Matsson summed up in one sporadic musing, “Hopeful songs are better, always.”