Review: Tallest Man on Earth + John Vanderslice @ Turner Hall

photo by CJ Foeckler

photo by CJ Foeckler

Words by Amy Elliott * Photos by CJ Foeckler

To call Kristian Mattson – the Tallest Man on Earth – anything short of phenomenon (though he is short, to be sure, at least in stature) would be a slight. A lone troubadour in boots and a pompadour with nothing but an acoustic guitar and a squawky croon that inevitably invokes comparisons to early Dylan, the Tallest Man on Earth nevertheless transcends singer-songwriter/open-mic night tropes to create natural, durable folk songs that sounds as though they were crafted around a campfire a century ago.

He performed a “No-Buck Show” for a packed crowd at the Pabst in April (and shot a great video from the balcony) and it seems as though the fans he earned that night turned out in force to see him open for John Vanderslice at Turner Hall. It’s pretty amazing how completely one man can transfix a hundred people so effortlessly, and his performance – mostly of songs from his 2008 LP Shallow Grave – was understated but full of presence and grace. Between songs, he spoke (adorably) about how much he loved Milwaukee, promised he’d be back soon and guessed that he’d spent more time here this year than his hometown in Sweden. He closed with a delightful (and as far as I can tell, unreleased) number about wanting to be the king of Spain (“I’ll wear my boots of Spanish leather/while I’m tightening my crown”) and a haunting rendition of the American folk standard “Moonshiner,” and when he was finished, the audience leapt the their feet. It was a thrill.

And then there was Vanderslice: equally adorable, though in a completely different mode – a relaxed, amiable musician with a dressed-down band. No ounce of posture or costume here – they looked like guys you’d run into at Koppa’s while they were grabbing a six pack and some gummi army men. When JV introduced them, he insisted the audience practice pronouncing his bassist’s Italian last name (“I have mispronounced his name hundreds of times,” he said. Then his bassist: “You just mispronounced it again”), told his keyboard player Ian Bjornstad that he looked like a Viking and made his guitar player Silvan Carton say something in French.

Of course, the warm, collegial banter belied the darkness at the heart of much of Vanderslice’s music – 2005’s Pixel Revolt and 2007’s Emerald City dealt largely with 9/11, the war in Iraq, alienation and loss. His records are shimmery and meticulously produced, but in person everything was stripped down, like the bare slamming of the tom drum on “Forest Knoll” and the quavering refrain on “Tablespoon of Codeine,” spared the synthesizer and layers of vocals. In person, these songs convey a gripping, honest sense of loss, pain and doom. To perform the title track from Romanian Names, the band left the stage, and Vanderslice was alone in the spotlight with his guitar, knocking on its body for a rhythm break. It was a minute and a half that felt like a bubble in time.

But it wasn’t all despair and wringing of hands – Vanderslice is as attentive to the sweetness of melody and subtlety of structure as anyone, and many of the songs on Romanian Names – a more personal album about love, relationships and change – are downright sunny, like power-stripped drive-in anthems. We were even graced with a selection from Moon Colony Bloodbath, his and John Darnielle’s (The Mountain Goats) concept album about organ farming on the move. It was goofy and jaunty and spookily touching, as touching as a song about running home through organ fields and ventilation domes on the moon can possibly be.

It wasn’t a barn-burner of an evening – there was no spectacle, no light shows, no smoke machines and no opportunities to tear up the dance floor. But it was a masterful and endearing performance, maybe the most satisfying night of music I’ve seen this year. And after the already dwindling crowd had mostly headed home, John Vanderslice asked a handful of us to wait five minutes while he grabbed his guitar. He returned as promise, and his drummer returned with a drum, and John played us a song, his band singing the harmony lines, all of us grouped in a little knot in the back of the Hall. It could’ve been a campfire, a century ago, or someone’s basement, or even just the empty, lights-up Turner Hall, with the tables and chairs cleared away and nothing but friendship and sincerity and a good song, beautifully sung, left behind.

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One Response to “Review: Tallest Man on Earth + John Vanderslice @ Turner Hall”

  1. amy Says:

    err, that’s “organ farming on the moon,” not organ farming on the move. considerably more ridiculous.

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