Of the twenty bands in my quest, the newest addition is The Tallest Man on Earth. A masterful cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” on Hype Machine first introduced me to Kristian Matsson’s finger-picked folk guitar a little over four months ago. My Last.FM says that I’ve listened to it 158 times since that first introduction, so it’s safe to say that it hooked me.
Matsson’s cover of “Graceland” enamors me because it improves upon a classic. The Tallest Man on Earth remains true to the original song structure but varies dramatically in arrangement and delivery, resulting in a more cohesive tune.
The original “Graceland” is a remarkably conflicted tune. Simon puts forth optimism in the jaunty arrangements while inserting world-weary lyrics. He tries to have it both ways, and for that reason I’ve always thought that song was particularly annoying.
Matsson’s version redeems the song by syncing up the two contrasting moods. Stripping the tune to its bare minimums (1 voice, 1 guitar) draws the lyrics to the forefront, placing the burden of meaning on the wildly conflicted words. “I’m going to Graceland” transforms from a statement of fact (in Simon’s version) to a last hope (in Matsson’s).
Matsson’s deft guitar work grants an immediacy to the songwriting that the more languid pace of the original “Graceland” could not provide. His ragged, unrestrained voice heightens the sense of urgency originated by the guitar. These two elements sync up with the quiet resignedness inherent in the original lyrics and turn the song into one of overt desperation.
This tension (melodic, rhythmic, and lyrical) culminates in Matsson braying out the titular phrase as the dramatic hinge point of the song that Simon intended it to be. “I’m going to Graceland” doesn’t fit with “She comes back to tell me she’s gone” or “Everybody sees you’re blown apart,” and that’s the point. It’s all the narrator’s got left. It sounds like Kristian Matsson’s life is hanging on the place of “Graceland,” and it subsequently feels like the listener’s is too.
Mostly artists show different sides or possibilities of a song with a cover; rare is the artist that improves a song with a cover. Johnny Cash via Rick Rubin did it consistently, but he’s about the only one I’d found until Matsson’s “Graceland.”
With a cover like that, there’s no way to not seek out his original tunes. I did, and instantly fell in love. All the drama and emotional power of “Graceland” was packed into his own compositions. I told my best friend about The Tallest Man on Earth, and he was equally as enthralled. When I found out The Tallest Man was swinging through Dallas, I called up my friend and we set up the trip.
After getting held up just enough to miss opener S. Carey (so saddened by this), I dropped in right before Matsson’s set on Friday, September 17 at the House of Blues’ Cambridge Room. I had low expectations; I wanted Matsson to be a great live show, but I know that it’s often hard for people to translate recorded performances into live power.
From the opening notes to the last fading melody, he proved that he was up to the task. His voice sounds even more urgent live, and his ability to nail even the most complex of guitar lines while singing sent chills up my spine. Whether playing old favorites like “The Gardner” or brand-spanking-new tunes like “The Dreamer” and a revamped “Like the Wheel,” he commanded the audience with excellent musicianship and confident stage presence.
The amount of fans in Dallas who knew the words to his songs visibly surprised him; he was taken aback (literally, he stepped backwards in shock) during “I Won’t Be Found” by the vocal fan response, but generally grew into the understanding that Dallas collectively has his back. He even dropped his vocals out of a few lines in “King of Spain” and let the audience sing them to him. His visible appreciation corresponded with his audible appreciation, as he thanked the audience multiple times for coming.
The raw power and emotive force that drive “Graceland” drove many of his other tunes, including a particularly powerful “Where Do My Bluebird Fly?” and a rousing “The Wild Hunt.” This, paired with his confident showmanship and easy swagger, made the evening delightful. Even though he didn’t play the cover that got me hooked on his nimble songs, the show was not disappointing in any other way.
A Tallest Man on Earth show is thoroughly recommended for the casual or hardcore fan. I can with glee and fond memories cross this one off the list of the Top Twenty Quest.