Published Nov 06, 2015It's hardly surprising that Kalle Mattson's go-to segue on stage is "this is a song about death."
His Polaris Music Prize long-listed album, 2014's Someday, the Moon Will Be Gold, opened the lyrical floodgates of confronting his mother's passing, a topic Mattson revisited throughout his show at Ottawa's National Arts Centre.
While the Sault Ste. Marie-born, Ottawa-based songwriter's latest offering, Avalanche, is his most unapologetically pop EP yet, death, longing and nostalgia form the thematic core of his show. Despite some mixing issues, Mattson succeeded at captivating his adopted hometown's crowd last night (November 5), leading them by the hand through his wistful memories.
Mattson began the night at the National Arts Centre's intimate candle-lit Fourth Stage as a trio, playing acoustic guitar and harmonica backed by electric guitar, brass and synthesizer accents from band mates Rory Lewis and J.F. Beauchamp. Beauchamp's trumpet swells in particular gave Mattson a heightened sense of triumph over adversity on the opener "An American Dream," Someday highlight "Darkness" and Sault Ste. Marie ode "A Love Song to the City."
Singer-songwriters are as common as politicians in Ottawa, and Mattson knew he was playing to a crowded market. "Just completing the cliché," he deadpanned during one of many moments of self-deprecating stage banter. "Bet you haven't seen a white, male singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar and harmonica before. "
Mattson has made several chess moves to stand out from his contemporaries. His "Avalanche" music video gained international press through his effort to remake 35 classic album covers, and Mattson's timely, stripped-down cover of Drake's "Hotline Bling" has racked up 650,000 plays on SoundCloud to date.
What truly captivated, though, was Mattson's unique voice. Wavering between masculine and feminine tones gave Mattson the power of a universal storyteller — he knew when to soar and when to hush, pulling the room closer into his words. When he sang of bleeding, the audience felt the knife.
Singing from his mother's perspective on Avalanche closer "Baby Blue," his pregnant pause during the lyric "I will always be waiting up for…you" lingered in the air, the heavy weight of her absence. Mattson and the audience both chuckled as he started "Hotline Bling," but one verse in and the room fell silent, hung up on Mattson's emotive storytelling — even when the stories weren't his own.
For the second half of his set, Mattson performed with a full band, complete with drums and bass. However, the added power sometimes overwhelmed the mix, compromising Avalanche's signature synth-pop elements. The pulsing beat of "A Long Time Ago" swallowed the rest of the song live, and the fun chimes of "Lost Love" were all but drowned out by guitar work. Hopefully, more road testing will bring Avalanche's songs closer to the balance of the record.
Mattson and his band returned to form for the cathartic flourish of guitars, trumpet and drums on "The Living & the Dead" and Avalanche's title track. Even though "New Romantics," the liveliest song on the EP, was missing its catchy keyboard line, Mattson proved it could hold its own as a melodic jam.
One of Mattson's strongest moments of the night was his last: preforming a new song called "Astronaut" for his solo encore. While Mattson explained that it dealt with the loss of his grandmother, he couldn't help but joke about how she inspired its chorus, cursing his inability to turn off the part of his brain that makes songs out of phrases. For Mattson, laughing at death seems the best way to carry on — that he conveys that levity in concert is perhaps his greatest strength.