2 May 2010: Stubb's Austin, TX
“We couldn’t do a sound check because Norah Jones was playing outside,” said Kristian Matsson, the man more commonly known as The Tallest Man on Earth, during the middle of his set. Sound check or not, Matsson’s blend of minimalist folk rock managed to sound vital and awe-inspiring as he played to a sold out indoor stage at Stubb’s May 2. The crowd did not seem to mind either, as many of his songs received rapturous applause throughout the night.
Armed with little more than an acoustic guitar and his bewildering voice, Matsson has been riding a wave of much deserved hype over the past few months. His debut album, 2008’s Shallow Grave introduced the world to his gifts as a guitar player, a lyricist, and a vocalist, with all three receiving comparisons to early Bob Dylan, quite an honor for a twenty-something from Sweden. While many artists have been hailed as “The Next Dylan” over the years, The Tallest Man on Earth did what many of those before him could not; make an album full of memorable, no-nonsense folk songs that play to all of the strengths of his influences.
From his finger plucked guitar playing to his vivid lyrics delivered in a raw croak that is at once familiar and endearing, he immediately separated himself from others in the folk revival movement simply by being exceedingly good at what he does. The Wild Hunt, released in April to almost universal acclaim, saw Matsson honing in on his skills and expanding his sound while staying true to the stripped down approach. The intimacy, immediacy, and unyielding energy that is present on his records was felt in full force during his performance, as he poured all that he had into ensuring that he would leave his mark on the Live Music Capital of the World.
Opening band Nurses were an interesting choice for Matsson to bring with him on tour. Their stage set up was an early indicator of what they would sound like, which consisted of two electronics boards, a guitar stand, and a small drum set. A folk group this was not. From the opening notes of the group’s first song, it was obvious that the band can conceivably cite Animal Collective as one of their primary influences. The nasally, reverberated vocals of lead singer Aaron Chapman sounded as if Panda Bear was being channeled through a different body. Hell, fellow knob twiddler John Bowers looks a lot like Geologist. Despite this, the combination of electronic piano swirls, odd noises, and lovely vocal harmonies made for some very catchy songs, any of which would not be out of place as B-Sides to Feels or Strawberry Jam.
It’s unfortunate that Animal Collective almost have a monopoly on the style of music Nurses play, because they were quite good in their own right. They were genuinely in to what they were playing, the music sounded great, and they put on a fun show. However, the comparisons will always be there, and will likely loom over them until they differentiate themselves in some way. Still, the band did not disappoint with their set, and the masses of people waiting to see The Tallest Man on Earth gave them a very ample applause when they finished.
When Matsson finally took the stage, the crowd gave him a hero’s welcome as he eased his way into the title track from The Wild Hunt. His voice was damn near pitch perfect to its recorded counterpart, and he displayed amazing vocal control. While some of the more organic tones of his acoustic guitars were absent from being plugged into an amplifier, his finger picking and strumming still sounded downright beautiful, creating the lush soundscapes over which he sang. This level of quality continued throughout his performance; many people simply closed their eyes and let Matsson serenade them. Despite being packed into a small, stuffy room at 11:30 on a Sunday night, concertgoers let the music take them to a place where a single man with a guitar holds the power to transcend the notion of place.
There were many highlights in Matsson’s set, including the gorgeous “I Won’t Be Found”, which contains some of his most vibrant lyrics, Wild Hunt standout “Troubles Will Be Gone” and the on edge sound of “Pistol Dreams”. There was a healthy mix of material from both albums, each song played with the same amount of energy and technical finesse as the last. One notable absence was the title track from Shallow Grave, as Matsson did not bring a banjo with him. However, songs “The Gardener” and “You’re Going Back” more than made up for that minor omission.
In addition to his chops as a musician, Matsson proved to be quite the showman, as he moved around on stage and would occasionally look to the balcony above, appreciating the fact that some audience members were dancing to his songs. Although he could belt out a tune with the best of them, he was surprisingly soft spoken as he addressed the crowd, his most common phrase being “Thanks for being so nice to me.” Of course, when your music speaks for itself, you do not need the bombast and arrogance of a rock and roll star to make your mark, and this made Matsson all the more relatable.
His main set closed with arguably his most popular song, the chill inducing “King of Spain”. On top of a runaway guitar riff, Matsson’s voice sounded vibrant and free. At the end of the song, while holding a note before heading into the outro, his voice became nearly unhinged, sounding as if it would break at any moment. However, it kept, and he was able to sing the last few words without a hitch. The fact that he is able to do this night in and night out is a testament to his abilities as an artist, and one of the many qualities that makes him a unique talent.
While it may be easy to describe The Tallest Man on Earth as sounding like early Bob Dylan, it is only a reference point for those looking for a quick comparison. Matsson has carved himself a place as one of modern folk music’s most important artists, and his performance at Stubb’s handily proved that he is a live act that is not to be missed. If he keeps releasing quality albums and plays his cards right, not even Norah Jones will be able to stop The Tallest Man on Earth.