The Tallest Man on Earth
By Andrew Hall | 29 April 2011
The Reid Campus Center Coffeehouse is quite possibly my least favorite place to see music anywhere in the world. Between the fact that it serves no coffee and that its defining feature is a solid brick pillar in the center of the room—one that effectively obliterates music’s chances of sounding good—I can’t think of anything other to say than that I hated this stage when I lived in Walla Walla, and still think it’s terrible now. During my time there, I saw a number of bands’ sets fall apart in a wash of inaudibility and frustration. Chin Up Chin Up played the longest set they’d ever recalled playing there in 2006 and I couldn’t make out more than a few notes of it. Talkdemonic was rendered an imprecise blur when compared to sets of theirs I saw both before and after.
Only two bands, to my knowledge, didn’t sound like shit: one was Horse Feathers (who, in 2007, filled the place better than any band I ever saw before or after), and the other was Fleet Foxes, whose voices in early 2008 rang as clear the week before they got their breakthrough reviews as they did the two times I saw them later on that year. So I really was hoping that the Tallest Man on Earth, being a dude with an acoustic guitar, was going to be one of the rare performances that worked out in spite of the literal obstacles in front of him. This turned out to be about half-right.
Apparently I didn’t get the memo, but 18-22 year-old girls really love the Tallest Man on Earth. There were people lined up to be at the very front of the stage hours before showtime—almost none male—and their excitement over watching Kristian Matsson soundcheck, introduce himself, and come and go over the course of several hours was clearly the same feeling I’d experienced when I waited hours to see the Mountain Goats for the first time when I was eighteen. (Which, I’ll add, I don’t regret for a minute, and I don’t look down upon anyone excited to see a musician; it’s a pretty welcome change of pace from going to see just about any band ever, especially in a 21+ setting.) Their patience was rewarded by being the only people who would have the privilege of being able to see or hear anything going on for the entirety of his set.
Which brings us to the basic problem we were facing here: Matsson probably played a very good show, and according to the people who were within a five-foot radius of him, he did; he was thoroughly audible, and it was hugely exciting and the songs were perfect. Unfortunately, all evidence of this was obliterated by a PA that simply lacked the power to actually project either voice or guitar across the entire space and an audience that talked twice as loud as he played. In effect, for about 95% of his set, the Tallest Man on Earth could be neither seen nor heard, lost completely to his noisy surroundings (as were the Mumlers, who opened for him and by simply having more instruments onstage fared even worse).
By the end of Matsson’s hour-plus, I was annoyed at everyone around me and left with the unhappy revelation that despite how well he can play, most of his fingerpicking patterns sound exactly the same when it’s impossible to hear his voice, his melodies, or anything but the continuous drone of a hundred conversations, most of which were about their inability to see or hear the performer. However, when the majority of these people cleared out and Matsson played the sparse, chord-driven “Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird,” the title track from the EP he released last year, it all almost felt worth it. The energy being projected and swallowed whole fifteen feet away from me finally felt like it had found its way into the back of the room, where I’d been standing for the last hour because I don’t wait for four hours to be in the very front when I go to see bands anymore.
I’m not sure if I even saw a concert, really. I’d like to see the Tallest Man on Earth at some point; I like his songs quite a bit, and I think I’d have nice things to say about him if I could see his face or hear more than one song in a set of his. If this performance was a contest between performer and space, with the two actively engaged in competition, the space won out. And the audience—well, almost all of us anyway—lost.