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The intimidatingly titled Tallest Man on Earth began his Zierholz show this Wednesday not with a bang but a whisper – literally.
Taking the intimate stage (above which he towered a less-than-intimidating 5”8') in a humble white tee and blue jeans, the man lesser known as Kristian Matsson greeted his rapturous Canberra crowd with naught but a deliberate ‘hush’ – eyebrows raised, index finger tight to lips, calmly bringing claps and cheers and universal noise back down to silence.
This coy start, however, would far from set the pace for the night’s remaining entertainment. Rather, it was something of the calm before a storm of beautiful, intricate and powerfully delivered tunes from an artist rapidly and rightfully gaining recognition for his unique breed of brilliance within the fickle indie scene.
Having missed him on his last round of the nation, I experienced the standard regretful fan’s bout of
pre-show anxiety that my long-held favourites from early in his canon would have become stale or – better? worse? – altogether absent. That fear was quelled, however, by Matsson’s delivery of The Gardener and I Won’t Be Found, lead tunes from his full-length debut and instantly recognisable Tallest
Man numbers. These songs came just as the set began to deepen its character, Matsson introducing some charmingly self-deprecating small talk and an intimate acoustic triad. Despite the years since their release, both were delivered with not only genuine passion but a startling sincerity and authenticity, all those things of which we come to fear the absence in artists we have loved too long.
While the third song was a recent single, Leading Me Now, this gave no cause for complaint. Instead, Matsson struck enough balance to woo even nervous skeptics like myself into satisfied appreciation, as each song – old or new! – built upon and fitted into a tight and structurally coherent set.
Indeed, to watch Matsson perform is to observe an unorthodox master of crowd manipulation at work. Few aspects of his showmanship could be considered standard. The intensity of his steady gaze into the crowd, his penchant for hunched and frenzied moves across the stage, the theatrical exaggeration of each facial contortion his lyrics demand, and the jolting continuation of these reactions through his body are all traits which differ markedly from norms within the folk-inspired style he assumes.
Yet something about this deviation is undeniably effective. This is in part because Matsson’s songs are so driven by his lyrics, behind the seeming simplicity of which lie a touchingly raw honesty and poet’s sophistication. The quirks of his style ensure these words will shine, despite the frequent intricacy of his accompanying guitar.
Through an entrancing and somewhat terrifying combination of neck strains, moving eyebrows,
grimaced jawlines and quivering jowls – and always, always still that unrelenting, direct gaze –
Matsson’s lyrics take the focal ground, his words delivered with the exaggerated expression and exact
enunciation of a children’s television host. Yet somehow, there is nothing forced about his delivery. Rather, the bold honesty with which this intensity is matched leaves the impression of something between an inquisition and seduction. And Matsson’s crowds are quick to fall in love.
Of course, it probably helps that he offers more “thanks for listening” than most performers outside
of their first show, last show, or teenage years. It also probably helped that an artist who came to
Canberra on the back of an Opera House show the night before demonstrated such respect for our
humble capital (more than once did Matsson remain standing for what was introduced as a ‘sit-down
song’, and not to get carried away here but I could honestly swear those thanks were genuine).
Regardless, it is a credit to the skill and love with which he delivers his craft that by the time Matsson declared three songs remaining he did not have to lift even a finger to achieve his desired result. In a display of Pavlovian adaptation, the crowd dissolved into a hushed chorus of self-imposed shushing in preparation for his gutsy finale.
A skilled performer in so many ways, The Tallest Man on Earth is not an act you want to miss this time around.