The Tallest Man on Earth. Photo: Julia Mard
After being admonished for moving my chair from one section to another by a seldom-smiling waitress (wait, they have waitresses here?), I settled into my seat and my Cutthroat and waited. The Depot was slowly filling with a smattering of people. Everyone from tall-beanied, bearded hipsters to frat-boys in ugly neon striped tanks to indescribably normal people came out to see the show, but luckily, and unlike a number of shows I’ve seen at Urban Lounge, the night seemed devoid of sparkle-jeaned asshats. Sipping away at my beer, I watched the crowd grow louder as the lights went down. They steadily silenced themselves as slow, atmospheric guitar cast a smooth net over the room and heavy bass kicks brought the audience’s attention to a solemn duo on stage.
Strand of Oaks got started with the driving, steady bass kicks of Chris Ford while Tim Showalter’s guitar slowly cross-picked the opening riff to “Dark Shores.” Showalter’s crystal voice sent haunting verses into the audience, whose stupefied faces slowly swayed to the song. Believe it or not, I only saw one idiot who seemed to think his phone was more entertaining than the band––a new record.
One thing that was clear from the beginning is that whoever handles sound and lights at The Depot deserves an award or a raise or something, because the sound was immaculate and the lights were dazzling. The balance between the duo’s drums, guitar and vocals were clearer than I’ve heard anywhere and the lights sparkled perfectly with dark blues and purples complementing the gigantic sound the duo managed to create. All aspects of the performance, both those on stage and those behind the scene, were absolutely stupendous.
Strand of Oaks’ sound lightened up a bit as Showalter strummed into “Satellite Moon,” while Ford kept the pace with insanely precise and impressive beats. As the band drove into the chorus, Showalter rose a hand above his head to cast his spell with his face hidden behind long brown hair. The most amazing thing about Strand of Oaks is that, although songs like “Satellite Moon” feature bass and keys on the album, their overall sound lost absolutely nothing for a live performance stripped down to drums, vocals and guitar.
Clearly, Showalter’s black-magic spell or Jedi-mind trick was working because, as the band played on, it became obvious that the huge, encompassing sound couldn’t have possibly been coming from just two people, but it was. While their overall sound seemed somewhat simple, it was large enough to reach out to grab and hold you in its arms.
A few songs later and the band’s sound still had me wrapped up as they launched into the stratosphere with “Spacestations,” which took their sound from a large world of noise to an entire universe. Everyone in the venue traveled with Oaks to their lonely little place in the galaxy where cool, airy soundscapes were the norm and where Showalter’s voice turned to falsetto squeals for a pained chorus that, despite the whole audience being with him, sounded lonely and distant.
“I know, we’re playing lots of sad songs tonight,” Showalter said midway through, before sauntering into “Sleeping Pills,” which had an extremely dynamic build, growing from tiny to humongous with a gorgeous conclusion. Oaks never let up the touching songfest for the rest of the set, playing only a few slightly more up-tempo tunes like “Diamond Drill,” where Showalter’s guitar sounded like two at once, and “Sterling,” which prompted plenty of couples to chance a few small pecks as they swayed together, wrapped in each other (Jesus, like I wasn’t lonely enough as it is).
To concrete my desolate feelings, Showalter dedicated the final song, “Bonfire,” to his wife. The song was tender and slow and maintained their vast sound as it whimpered to a close, prompting mad cheers from the audience and dark feelings from me. Although the set was sad, it was also heartfelt, elating and magical. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to feel sad.
I waited for the next act as people shuffled past. The audience found their places and the lights went down, leaving a dark and empty stage with nothing but a few lights cast on a lonely microphone waiting for its master. A piano track began playing from the PA system and a voice that sounded like Kristian Matsson, The Tallest Man on Earth, came out of the recording in some foreign language that sounded for a moment like German, for a moment like French, and even had a few words in English. A big what-the-fuck was painted on everybody’s faces before Matsson himself skipped his way onto stage in a very flamboyant, Freddie Mercury-like fashion, mouthing words to the strange recording.
Clad in jeans and a black wife-beater, and sporting some almost Elvis-like hair, the Tallest Man on Earth (who is really only the tallest if you count the stage as part of his height), grabbed a guitar, and strummed into “King of Spain” like he was born on a stage. His gruff voice, which can waver quite a bit in live performances, was dead-perfect and left boot marks on every note. How somebody with such a gravelly voice can come off sounding like polished marble is beyond me, but only Matsson and Deer Tick’s John McCauley can pull it off with such adept precision. The audience sang along and it was immediately clear that even if he isn’t physically tall, Matsson stood well above anybody I’ve ever seen hit the stage with just a guitar and a voice.
Part of Matsson’s charm comes from the fact that he’s kind of a weird fucking dude. During songs he would stare at members of the audience, raising eyebrows oddly and hunching down low while he squinted, as though the tour manager asked him to look for the bus keys he dropped during sound-check. If Showalter’s spells came from incantations, Matsson’s came from his sometimes bizarre stage presence that wouldn’t let the audience pay attention to anything but him––I’ve never seen one person take such command of a crowd. He even had a number of witty retorts to male audience members hollering “I love you,” saying something about the night being one of “manly love.”
The Tallest Man continued, drilling into “Love is All” with ten-finger-intricacy and proving that his sound could be at least as large as Strand of Oaks. The song really brought his mastery of the guitar to light while also displaying the influences of fellow acoustic virtuoso Nick Drake. The sometimes-acoustic-sometimes-electric (he switched nearly every song) guitar licks were very clean and resonant and were especially fantastic when combined with his melodies, which were always on pitch.
Other highlights were “1904,” which Matsson played on a warm acoustic while strutting around the stage, crouching down and gazing wildly at the audience. At one point, Matsson explained to the crowd that he was going to sit––whether he was being funny or needed to sit to play a difficult guitar part was never clear. He certainly could’ve used a stool because he sat down right on the floor of the stage (and did so a few times later), disappearing from my view behind audience heads. “What is this, a tallest man on earth competition?” my companion quipped, unable to see. I chuckled as Matsson finger-picked his way into “Leading Me Now,” which was another great display of his talented finger-work and powerful voice working together to create an unyieldingly catchy number.
“Where Do My Bluebird Fly,” was one of the most passionate, vocally. Matsson’s voice had a jilted waver that had my heart-strings lurching. “Criminals,” was excellent as well and featured a very moving and elaborate solo that made my tendons ache just watching. The best song of the night was “Like the Wheel,” which was by far the most down-hearted song he played, but contained a soulful, elating spirit seldom seen in such somber tunes. The swaying couples were completely lost in his wounded melodies.
Mattson finished the set with a few bows only to emerge a few minutes later to play a well-received encore to excited fans that featured a short, but potent cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” He bowed once more, dropping to his knees to thank the audience with genuine sincerity.
The fact that only three people could garner such a response and hold so tightly to such a large audience is completely baffling. Both Strand of Oaks and the Tallest Man on Earth played sets that can only be described as faultless. I never heard a single missed note and the sound was nothing but pure clarity––no microphone squelch and not a lick of distortion, except where it was intended. I left The Depot that night with a smile that still hasn’t left and a few ear-worms I’m happy to still have with me.