It seems incongruous that The Tallest Man on Earth should be so sprightly and nimble onstage. His folk-influenced, lyrically complex sound is powerful, but Kristian Matsson is no lumbering Bigfoot. The small-framed virtuoso hops around like a guitar-playing leprechaun, pausing to stare into the eyes of his audience with comic intensity.
The last time I saw Matsson live was at a solo show at Bimbo’s, a club in San Francisco so intimate that he might have plausibly stared into my eyes. This time, Matsson stood between a four-man band and a full house at the Fox Theater in Oakland. It was anything but intimate.
Matsson showcased an impressive discography, playing most of the songs on his new album, “Dark Bird is Home,” interspersed with favorites from his first three albums such as “A Lion’s Heart” and “Revelation Blues.” While he played most of the show to the accompaniment of his band, Matsson played a few songs solo, including the audience favorite “Love Is All.” It’s got to feel good to have a full house singing all those “oh, oh, oh-ohs” back to you onstage.
Matsson’s lyrics are at once raw and delicate, punctuating his rolling finger picking and bizarre open tunings with moments of surprising poetry. His rhythm changes and bright strumming patterns pull something in me taut, and accompanied by his honest stage presence, they almost brought me to tears.
That honest stage presence is precisely the quality that makes his performance outstanding. If anything, when he gets onstage, he is not performing, but peeling back the layers of social performance we all put on in the morning, standing there bare and saying, “this is how I feel.” That takes courage. In his cryptic lyrics, he tells the story of lost love, profound loneliness, even depression. He leaves in every sigh, grunt, and growl that accompanies the feelings in his songs. Bared to his critics, he can get away with leaping between amps and convulsing in his skin-tight jeans without seeming gimmicky.
There are moments when Matsson forgets a word or two, and it only makes his performance more soulful. Staring upward – toward the balcony? The muses? God? – he seems to surrender himself to the music as it unfolds, letting whatever hysteria emerges pour out of his small frame, mistakes and all. It gives the impression that the music is driving the artist, not the other way around. That said, this is a musician who is completely in control of his instruments, enough that he can pick the open strings on his guitar with one hand as he drags his chair to center stage with the other.
On Matsson’s new album, his characteristic throaty, Dylanesque voice sounds airier and eerier, giving an overall impression of greater distance between singer and listener on most of the tracks. The album swerves from the more humble sound of his first three albums towards a more produced final product. The result is a Swedish artist who, while influenced heavily by American Folk music, is clearly rewriting his own genre. Add in a band of experts who can put down the violin on one song and pick up the electric guitar on the next, and the sound becomes heart-wrenching.
Matsson encored with two slower songs, “The Dreamer” and “Like the Wheel,” bringing whatever emotional tumult the show may have aroused in his audience to a bittersweet resolution.
The intensity of feeling that Matsson’s performance elicits is one that most of us rarely allow ourselves to feel past childhood. He nudges us to crest high peaks and tumble into low troughs, all within the safety of the song. As he sings in his new track “Slow Dance,” “We’re some laundry line believers/ We’re just kids in many ways.” Matsson gives his audience one of the greatest gifts an artist can give: he invites us to be believers; he lets us be kids.