On a long BART ride to Oakland after a longer day at school, I thought I probably couldn’t stay awake at a punk show, much less an acoustic folk concert. When I arrived at the Fox and saw that the Tallest Man on Earth show was seated, I was sure that I was doomed.
The stage setup was minimal, with one chair, a circle of monitors, and one keyboard. I stifled a yawn as Kristian Matsson, a.k.a the Tallest Man on Earth, skipped onto the stage in a white tank top and black skinny jeans, looking ironically small on the large, sparse stage. Matsson picked up his guitar, strummed, and wailed out his first note, sending the audience into hysterics.
As Matsson began to bounce and stomp around the stage, I perked up. By the halfway point of the first song, sleep was the furthest thing from my mind. Matsson’s fiery body language matches the incredible dynamics of his songwriting. He filled the stage with kinetic energy, crouching, hopping, and skipping as his voice, at once full-bodied and reedy, soared over his deft finger-picking.
Playing with an incredible degree of comfort and ease, Matsson handled the guitar like an extension of himself, looking as though his body was crafted just to hold the instrument. As he sang and stomped, Matsson strummed with enough vigor to break strings. At the end of each song, he threw his pick down as if to punctuate the end of the song not with an ellipse but with the exclamation point it deserves.
The extent of Matsson’s guitar prowess makes it strange that he has taken a turn to piano on significant portions of his most recent album There’s No Leaving Now. When Matsson set down the guitar in favor of the keyboard, the songs lacked an energy and ingenuity essential to Matsson’s style.
The second that Matsson sat down at the piano bench, my fatigue returned. The songs are no less beautifully written and his voice is no less compelling, but tied down to one location and without the lush instrumentation of his masterful guitarwork, the Tallest Man on Earth takes a sharp decline from folk deity to average singer-songwriter.
Sadly, Matsson seems to be unaware of this effect. The last song of the night was scored by the keyboard, leaving a lot to be desired. Despite the milquetoast conclusion, Matsson remains one of the most exciting players in contemporary folk. If he can stick to his strengths, Matsson will have something truly great on his hands.