On Wednesday evening, the east/west street of Armitage Ave. in Chicago connected the setting sun and the rising full moon just before the show at Park West. Now, I’m but a poetaster, but seeing a star and a natural satellite tethered for a brief moment in the sky as I walked to the venue seems, in retrospect, an epic prologue to the kind of show I was about to experience. And it wasn’t just a full moon, or even a Harvest Moon, but a fucking Super Harvest Moon. Even the universe, as absurd as it may be, understood for a moment that S. Carey and The Tallest Man On Earth was an event of awesome power–that soon two separate but equally masterful musicians would take the stage and steal our breaths and hearts and silence our thoughts. What I’m getting at is this: The show was incredible.
Park West is this oddball venue in Lincoln Park–a sort of chic night-clubby place with a small dance floor surrounded by cabaret tables and tiny, plush booths that could seat two portly gentlemen comfortably and four bros real awkwardly. By the time S. Carey went on at eight, the pit area was pretty packed, which is always nice for an opener. But Carey was no opener.
Joining Carey were his three backing band members and a special guest on the violin (or was it the viola?), Michael Noyce, also of Bon Iver. Only two members shy of a full-on Bon Iver show, I almost expected some lulling neo-folk to gently tap on our shoulders to remind us that we were there to see The Tallest Man On Earth. This was not the case with Carey, and my idea of his show was thrown directly out the window with opening numbers “Move” and “We Fell”, tracks one and two off his debut EP, All We Grow. The open fourths, like an orchestra getting in tune, rang out, the bassist bowed at his upright bass, the percussionist bowed at his cymbals, as Carey suggested that we “dream of a naked pier.”
Then “We Fell” began with three-part syncopated vocalization akin to something the Pat Metheny Group might do. With the piano keeping time underneath, the vocal harmonies continued to build until the overtones rang out over the venue and up into the dome overhead. The song built to a tight wash of vox and layers of music until it tapered off into silence.
Carey does what a live act should do: expand upon the ideas on the album and explore the benefits of live musicians. The subdued nature of his album transformed to something far livelier on stage, shifting between the early post-rock sounds of Slint or Talk Talk and experimental textured folk noise. The set also included a raucous percussion jam that delivered far more energy than anyone expected to hear on this night. By utilizing the most primitive musical building blocks of drones, rhythm, and strong contrasting dynamics and builds, Carey hit all the sweet spots. By the end, an attentive audience cheered loudly for the band. It was well deserved.
I sat at my table and watched The Tallest Man On Earth briskly walk onstage. Kristian Matsson just exudes happiness. Whether it’s his pleasure in performing or his affable foreigner quality, his presence just lights up the room. He’s shy and awkward between songs, qualifying most sentences with “so, yeah,” but that all ends when the guy starts a-singing and a-playing.
In Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark directed his band of players to “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” This is precisely what Matsson does in his songs. Whether it’s a furrowed brow of a tortured man, a wry smile of a knowing man, a distant gaze of a searching man, or a goofy head shake of a silly man, nothing ever seems put-on or performed. His huge personality shines through his lyrics and his melodies. His voice dances around his words, wrestles with diphthongs, scrapes out a note, delivers it to the crowd, and effortlessly moves to the next phrase. Watching him perform is a sight to behold, because he possesses something so goddamn real, and he wants to share it with everyone. There are no airs about him.
His set touched on the best of his last three albums, running the gambit of every one of his styles. His fast-pickin’ tunes balanced with his 60s folk jangles, interpolated with some new and beautiful ballads (“Tangled In This Trampled Wheat” and “Like The Wheel” from his latest EP), which finally found Matsson sitting down after prowling and crouching about the stage.
The more rousing numbers like “King Of Spain” spawned some fun sing-along moments, as he offered the mic to the crowd at various points, to which we responded emphatically. Just when the set was feeling a little too positive (my inner cynic is one tough prick), the stunning “Where Do My Bluebirds Fly” from Shallow Grave left the crowd silent. I’m pretty sure it’s one of his only songs in a minor key, which sounds almost jarring at first, but it proved a welcome addition to a setlist steeped in upbeat songs, even though the subject matter of a song like ”The Gardener” is anything but positive.
Before the night was over, The Tallest Man On Earth would play his most accomplished new song, “Dreamers”, cover a bit of Sade’s “By Your Side”, and play a heartfelt duet with his producer (girlfriend?) Amanda Bergman that made Jenny & Johnny look like Sid & Nancy. Seriously, they fell into each other’s eyes and for once in the night, Matsson wasn’t playing for us–a moment of sincere public solitude.
This was probably the best crowd I’ve ever seen at a folk concert. I’d like to chalk that up to Chicago being a kind, midwestern city, but the real credit goes to Carey and Matsson, whose music really did capture the crowd so that no one dared be a drunken dick and yell during these songs. Okay, there was one guy, but here’s how great Matsson handled it:
Some guy: (during some silence) Fuck yeah!
TTMOE: I didn’t get that.
Some guy: Fuck YEAH!
TTMOE: (pause) Thanks.
The Tallest Man On Earth setlist:
A Field Of Birds
Burden Of Tomorrow
I Won’t Be Found
Love Is All
King Of Spain
Tangled In This Trampled Wheat
Like The Wheel
Where Do My Bluebirds Fly
Your Going Back/By Your Side (Sade cover)
Thrown Right At Me (duet w/ Amanda Bergman)
Photography by Meghan Brosnan.
Gallery by Meghan Brosnan