The Tallest Man at Sydney Opera House
Like a suspicious elf in brown leather boots plotting its mischievousness, he began by creeping around the stage, then leaning out and leering into the faces of those in the front rows…
Sydney Opera House is special. The globally-recognised, iconically Australian masterpiece never fails to make even the most seasoned and famous performers a little overwhelmed. Despite my adoration for the Tallest Man on Earth, I had my doubts that Kristian Matsson’s solo presence would fill the mighty venue. How wrong I was. His cautious and considered start raised anticipation to the point that, when he finally applied his nimble fingers and raspy yelp, the crowd hung on every word.
It took opening number, King of Spain, to adjust and perfect the sound levels, but then it was smooth sailing. Matsson couldn’t say anything except ‘Thank you” for the first half of the set. Once he got over being “O House – struck”, his rambling revealed a self-deprecating, humble Swede (although his lyrics, “I’m a native of the North Pole, and that can mess any kid up” is evidence enough of his rejection of any Scando-mania). He projects an acceptance of life. He knows he’s small; not just compared to other men but in terms of his place in the world, as he crooned “and I plan to be forgotten” in The Wild Hunt. His self-deprecation would almost create a heaviness to the performance if each cynical phrase was not completed with one of his cheeky smiles.
The only time he took to the piano (his self-proclaimed weakness) was for the title track of his 2012 album, There’s No Leaving Now. It was a definite highlight; the soulful beauty of Matsson howling up from the grand Steinway brought a tear to my eye.
The Tallest Man on Earth undeniably sounds a lot like Bob Dylan, lyrically and in vocal style and phrasing. Open tuning allows him to create complex guitar melodies that sound like many guitars playing together and could be clearly heard when he played Where Do My Bluebirds Fly. His guitar finger-plucking is so quick and intricate, but effortless too, as if he and his guitar are one and the same.
Then, late in the set, there was this spontaneous whistling exchange between the audience and Matsson. Top marks for a very musical crowd, or at least some A-grade whistlers. The Tallest Man on Earth joked that it was some symptom of post Mayan calendar life before launching into his final few songs. Now when I say launching, I’m being quite literal. He gallantly skips, hops and crouches around the stage, like a lithe, hyperactive boy.
While the set included songs from all three of his albums, last year’s release saw an obvious shift in key signature from minor to major chords. Apparently this is the result of facing life rather than running from it, but much of the set was still filled with longing for escape from the sadness and responsibilities of life. There’s always hope though as Matsson declares “I was more than just a coward, I was handsome too,” in Wind and Walls.
The final pre-encore song was Revelation Blues and at the sound of the last chord (as with each song before it) he threw his plectrum to the ground as if some disciplining force was making him stop. Of course, that wasn’t it. A full standing ovation eventually coerced him back onto the stage, this time accompanied by his wife (Swedish singer of Idiot Wild, Amanda Bergman). They stood close at one microphone giving a very special rendition of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Their intimacy and complementary voices were such a treat; a way to top something that I thought was already at the pinnacle.
Kristian Matsson might look like a boy, but that’s where it stops. Amongst his lyrics lies so much thought and wisdom, which is poetically weaved into his energetic and passionate performance. He proves that presence sure isn’t about size. Tallest Man On Earth indeed – figuratively anyway.
Review by Harriet Cheney