John Vanderslice / Tallest Man On Earth
Exit/In; Nashville, TN

[06-24-2009]

When Sweden's The Tallest Man on Earth (a.k.a. Kristian Matsson) steps on stage, he's given the warmest reception I've seen for an opener in recent memory. I'm only mildly familiar with his music, but I can't help thinking it's funny a guy called "tallest man" looks like a miniaturized Bonnie "Prince" Billy with less facial hair and better guitar chops. Characteristically, Nashville crowds tend to swoon over singer/songwriters, and there's plenty of that going on as Matsson sings "If the whiskey doesn't kill me, I don't know what will."

I'm not saying Swedes don't drink whiskey or anything, but the only thing legitimately great about TMoE is his guitar-comping. Maybe it's slightly antagonistic, but I find his super-gritty vocal style not only confrontational but unwelcoming, as he shows off guitar-slinger cold stares and brandishes his Taylor in a ridiculous fashion. Is it TMoE's BM-pushing vocals or my terribly-chosen Ramen noodle dinner that messes with my bowels? I may never know. I do know, however, Matsson seems like a nice enough guy in between songs, but there's little excuse for an opener to disrespectfully play an encore — which is exactly how his lengthy set ends.

When Vanderslice and full band break into the lilting and lyrically razor-sharp "Tablespoon of Codeine," I know this performance will be opposite to Matsson's. Although the band is roaring, I sadly notice people trickling out until only the modest-sized, full-fledged fans remain — whispers of "JV" (a term of endearment) are a surefire sign I'm in welcome company. I enjoy the initial sentiments that set the tone of the show, "What happened in September was a fake" ("Tablespoon of Codeine") and "freedom is overrated" ("Too Much Time"). To say the least, Vanderslice wasn't aiming to popularize any catch-phrases in the southern land.

Throughout the night, the capable backing band did well supporting imaginative rearrangements and open interpretations of older favorites "They Won't Let Me Run," "Angela," "Pale Horse," and newer tunes from Romanian Names. Keyboardist Ian Bjornstad deserves special recognition, holding things down despite minor sound issues. Fans groove when unexpected "White Plains" begins, and "Exodus Damage" became the night's most punctuated moment. While a few of the improv sections could vibe better, all's well that ends with an acoustic, crowd-encircled, on-floor-participating rendition of "Keep the Dream Alive" from 2001's classic Time Travel Is Lonely. For the first time, each person on the floor is face to face not only with the band, but with each other — unable to look away from the shared mouthing of lyrics and recognition of what they see: the JV fan within.

When Vanderslice embraces each member of his band and proceeds to make himself available to chat with anyone and everyone, I realize the moment is better than any encore.