Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Why We Middle-Aged People Need New Music (Concert review of The Tallest Man on Earth)

Note: For those who come to my blog only for the usual Torah commentary and Jewish musings, there are none in this post.  Here is where I get to fulfill my fantasy of being what I would love to be if I wasn't a rabbi--a rock critic.

If you want a sense of what it was like to hear Bob Dylan in his prime, don't go to a Bob Dylan concert.  Instead, run out and catch a show by the young Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Mattson, who performs as The Tallest Man on Earth.

Anyone who knows me is well-aware that I am a Bob Dylan fanatic, so I do not make this statement casually.  Although, by a not-so-simple twist of fate, I was born too late to see Dylan at his best--in one of his amazing incarnations as an early 60s folk hero, mid-60s visionary rocker, or, my personal favorite, the broken-hearted bard of 1975's Blood on the Tracks--I have nonetheless been lucky enough to have caught him many times live since the late 1970s, when he could still put on a memorable show.  But those days are gone.  Always brilliant at making the most of what he's got, Dylan now dons the mask of the weary, hard-bitten road warrior.  He fits the part.  Yet with his voice burned down to an atonal froggy rasp, I find him virtually unlistenable in concert, an almost-camp parody of his legendary self.

But tonight, I got an inkling of how I imagine it must have felt to hear Bob at the Gaslight in the Greenwich Village of 1962, at the infamous "Royal Albert Hall" show of 1966, or on his 1974 comeback tour with The Band.  This is not to say that The Tallest Man on Earth stands eye to eye with Bob Dylan, who is one of the greatest artists of any genre in the 20th century (this would be a tall order even for the TMOE, who is not really all that tall).  But Kristian Mattson does provide a taste of that kind of musical glory. He is an extraordinary singer-songwriter, and an amazing guitar player.  His stage presence is electric, and he shares Dylan's calling as a troubador, singing of loss and anger and pain and joy and, above all, vision and longing.  

The Tallest Man on Earth also shares many of Dylan's sensibilities. This is no surprise, for Mattson grew up listening to Dylan records, to which he pays homage in songs like "King of Spain" where he dreams of boots of Spanish leather.  And as a Swede, he shares Dylan's roots in the North Country--further north, even, than Hibbing, Minnesota.  Those roots contribute to their shared starkness of vision and paradoxical surreal clarity.  It is also worth noting that Mattson's wife, fellow Swedish singer-songwriter Amanda Bergman, performs under the name Idiot Wind (perhaps the most epic song on Blood on the Tracks).  

But TMOE is also very much his own man and his own artist.  He fuses Dylan's legacy and influence with his own creativity--just as Dylan himself once did with the music of his own idol, Woody Guthrie.  To hear The Tallest Man on Earth is to hear both old and new, tradition and innovation.  I found that combination thrilling and enthralling.

I will never stop listening to Bob Dylan.  He is my undisputed musical master; if my life has a soundtrack, it is made up mostly of Dylan songs.  But sometimes the spirit of what is old lives on most strongly and faithfully in something new.  Those of us who are well into middle age need young artists to continue the legacy, to keep things fresh and revive what we loved in our youth.  I don't ever want to keep my dial glued to the oldies stations, wallowing in nostalgia.  Musical traditions--like all traditions--must be reinvigorated with every passing generation.  Without new blood, new interpretations, new visions--faithful, but not in blind service, to the old--the music dies.  I learned this lesson anew, joyously, tonight.

Thank you Kristian Mattson.

Lyrics from The Wild Hunt

And I will sleep out in the glade just by the giant tree
Just to be closer when my spirit's pulled away
I left a nervous little boy out on the trail today
He's just a mortal to the shoutin' cavalcade

I left my heart to the wild hunt a-comin'
I live until the call
And I plan to be forgotten when I'm gone
Yes I'll be leavin' in the fall

Let's open up the windows have Satan departin' now
And we'll be even when the blues fall down like hail
Hell I don't even care no more about cadejo now
If he's a white one or a black one on the trail

I left my heart to the wild hunt a-comin'
I live until the call
And I plan to be forgotten when I'm gone
Yes I'll be leavin' in the fall

Yes I'll be leavin' in the fall
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