The most obvious thing to say about The Tallest Man on Earth would be that he channels Bob Dylan, as so many others have said before. But to do so would totally dismiss the fact that Kristian Mattson is superbly talented in his own right. As he took the stage alone Tuesday night at the Triple Door, he did so with unassuming self-confidence and immediately burst into his opening song, "I Won't Be Found." Indeed, his voice does have a Dylanesque quality, but it's got more of a laryngal howl than a nasal whine.
The Triple Door was uncharacteristically full for a Monday night, owing to Mattson's prior appearances in Seattle having been so successful. He moved around the stage with an ease that can only come from having constantly performed over the past year. Although there's not a lot of showmanship in his performance, he prowled effortlessly around the stage, playing first to the right then to the left. Before he was finished with his first song, he had the whole audience in his front pocket, me included. I watched the skinny man in rapt adoration throughout his whole set.
He moved from "I Won't Be Found" to a scaled-back, lazier version of "Honey Won't You Let Me In" from the album version, finishing with a little moan. He progressed quickly to the gravelly, country-infused "Shallow Grave," also very unlike the album cut. I guess the difference between Tallest Man live and recorded is that there is no banjo present, only three accoustic guitars laid to his right onstage, each patiently waiting her turn to be played. He is indeed a very talented guitarist.
One of my favorites was up next, "Pistol Dreams". I'm not usually a lyrics person, but this one does get to me a little bit. Mattson has the same effect on me as Iron & Wine in that the lyrics seem particularly vivid. His performance was simple, but hypnotic. The guitar work isn't overly technical but more a vehicle for that throaty, smoky voice. You could see the audience experiencing a big, collective chill as he closed the song.
The Triple Door is a perfect venue for this performer. Seeming perfectly comfortable alone onstage, Mattson exuded a sexy stage presence that was captivating. He finally addressed the audience after finishing "Over the Hills" with a simple "Thanks" although he couldn't be heard over the roar of appreciative "whoops" coming from the crowd. Switching guitars, he began the morose "It Will Follow The Rain" which had a real "Grapes of Wrath" sepia-tone to it, speaking of locust plagues and lonely, desperate campfires. I'm wondering at this point, how does he do it? How does this kid from Sweden emanate such a southern-fried sound and speak to us in America so clearly on a level that belongs more to us than him? Where did he learn this, and how?
Shifting back to the more simple and upbeat "The Gardener", this is The Tallest Man On Earth's most recognizable song. In fact, it's what drew me to this musician in the first place, having heard it on KEXP only last week. Now this song cannot be called anything but "Dylanesque" in it's down-home folkiness. I love the lyrics, which speak of all the murder he has committed to ensure his girl doesn't discover his fraud, and bringing her to dance in the garden which is fertilized by all the bodies he's buried there. Hell yeah. He did quite a bit of stage roaming on this one, really stretching out the finale of the song, to huge crowd response. He followed this by a song that he seemed to enjoy playing quite a bit, as he became much more animated while singing. Not on any studio album, I believe the song is called "A Lie in His Heart" and contained some fast, complex guitar work and perfect twang. I didn't want to be anywhere other than where I was at that moment.
Next up was a haunting and empassioned version of "Where Do My Bluebird Fly" which made me want to be camping, really badly. After another song, The Tallest Man On Earth finally addressed his audience, actually apologizing for talking too little and explaining that he just doesn't ever know what to say, and indicating that it was hard to be so far from home. After an hour of listening to this hoarse country/blues twang, to finally hear a Swedish accent coming from the shy boy with the Elvis-bedhead was very endearing.
He followed this with "Steal Tomorrow" and "King of Spain", showing us more of his crazy talent on guitar with even an element of Tom Waits in his vocals. "King of Spain" is a fantastic song that I wish I could have a recording of, but alas it also isn't on any album. Mattson has a good time with this one, showing no hesitation and ending with a little OTT showmanship, which was nice. The man is beautiful – wild, but restrained.
In a way I found very Swedish, he apologized for his enthusiasm: "That's not a very polite way to say goodbye like that…" and launched into his final song, another memory-maker, with lyrics like "I will sleep just in the glad beneath the wild tree." He ended very graciously to a wild crowd response and promptly left the stage, but quickly returned for our encore after a little sustained hooting from the audience.
Somehow he made one guitar sound like three on the Guthrie-inspired song, which made me sigh wisfully with my chin planted in my hand. We were all totally enraptured. For his final tune, Mattson explained that it wasn't his song and that he "stole it" and proceeded to totally murder "Death Letter" by the White Stripes. He became very involved on this tune, playing with an urgent howl. The audience lost it and even he seemed to become totally swept away by it all, playing with the stage backdrop of twinkling stars and breaking into a huge smile. He thanked us and left the stage. As we left the venue, my friend turned to me and said "That was the best one-man band I've ever seen".