Sweden’s Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man On Earth, must by nowbe aware of the curious pull his ebullient, wide-eyed folk exerts -his once cult appeal is increasingly spilling into the mainstream andgarnering wholesale critical endorsement. After all, were that not thecase he simply wouldn’t find himself treading the boards in the rococosplendour of the Hackney Empire, playing to a packed house on the tourfor his acclaimed third album, There’s No Leaving Now.
Yet whilst his stature is growing – seemingly rising ever further tocomplement his stage name – he modestly chooses not to acknowledge it.Shuffling on stage at the start of his set, skinny-jeaned andmussy-haired, he wanders into the static spotlight to take an almostapologetic bow acknowledging the fervent reception. He even takes agood look about at his surroundings during opener To Just Grow Away,before meandering to the apron of the stage during a stunning dynamicdrop in Love Is All, peering out like the audience was a genuineobject of curiosity, one that he’d simply not laid eyes onbefore.
Maybe Matsson’s just trying to connect, but with the material in hislocker he needn’t worry – he comfortably justifies the opening ovationover the course of a captivating set. There’s plenty to admire in hisstyle of performance on stage too, one that distils a rare, earthymusical talent and welds it to an effortless charisma. A lithe andlissom presence, he twists on tip-toes, pivots and pitches aboutdrawing often sublime cascades of finger picked patterns from hisguitar. It’s a roughly-hewn diamond of a style that’s at once highlyrefined but also so casual and fluid as to be almost absent minded. Hecan also mix it up – he shakes 1904 from himself in a robust acousticstrum, again looking surprised at the reaction, before giving the sametreatment to older material, stomping through The Gardener from debutLP Shallow Grave.
That the set could draw so widely from his discography whilstremaining consistently engaging highlights the embarrassment of richesin the back catalogue of an artist who seemingly knocks out greatsongs with the same sort of regularity that most people change theirsocks. Whilst there’s been a certain amount of finger pointing,accusing his acoustic bent and folksy yelp of being derivative – andit’s a sound that was undeniably fostered in and adopted from theAmerican dustbowl – Matsson filters it through a distinctly Europeansensibility; pines and lakes rather than prairies and tumbleweeds.It’s also more subtly emotional and personal, hinting at themes ratherthan relying on mawkish confessional or clichéd storytelling.Tellingly, he is also keen to push the highly defined boundaries ofthe genre – both Like The Wheel and Where Do My Bluebirds Fly aretransposed to electric guitar, reinvigorated when played over agorgeous, ethereal backing courtesy of a blinking bank of guitarpedals side stage.
Matsson is generally quiet between songs, unfazed by any sort of a gapand letting the verve of his material do the talking. The audience aresilent too – so quiet it’s possible to hear the circle bar emptiesbeing taken out. When the piano led, crystalline There’s No LeavingNow is delivered, Matsson’s voice as cracked as it is authoritative,he fairly wrenches the words from himself. It’s difficult to tell ifthe rapt attention is awe or whether something palpable has been takenout of the crowd too. Derivative or not, it’s difficult to imagineanyone else pulling off a similar presence with equivalent material.Neither is it easy to think of a current artist who is capable ofwriting songs that can deliver such a punch in the guts, conjuringsuch attention from spare means. For now, Matsson is one totreasure.