When Kristian Matsson appears on the stage in Vicar Street he looks bedraggled. Wearing only a sleeveless tank top it is as if he has emerged from the hinterland that he draws upon in his songs. Matsson ironically stands at 5 foot 5 inches tall but to his audience he is known as ‘The Tallest Man On Earth’. His height matters little as his vocals soar. The Swedish singer-songwriter released his first EP in 2006 and since then he has steadily collected fans around the world due to his captivating stage presence. This is his fourth visit to Ireland.
Matsson has released three albums and two EPs. After his first full length album called Shallow Grave he was lumbered with the tag ‘the new Bob Dylan’ by lazy reviewers; such clichéd labelling has stunted many burgeoning songwriters. However Matsson managed to find his own voice amidst the cumbersome comparisons and his stature has continued to grow. His second album The Wild Hunt vastly improved on his first effort. On this album he explored the folk tradition and put his own lyrical roots down. Yes, he borrows but they all do; that’s what makes it a tradition. He has taken the great expanse of the American West, the plains and its open promise of freedom, and transposed them onto lands he is familiar with: the barren Scandinavian landscape. He sings of birds, fjords, streams, glaciers, canyons, highways, forests, mountains, hills and valleys. The passing seasons decorate his verses and we can feel the changing light as Fall is ushered in. A passion permeates this record as he imbues his stories of people with a sincerity conveyed by his raw and powerful voice. He uses his musings on a wilderness unknown to his audience in order evoke grand feelings for what are universal themes of love, loss and place.
This tour is to promote his latest album There’s No Leaving Now released earlier this year. He opened with a track from that album ‘To Just Grow Away’. Next he brought the audience right into the gig with “Love is All”. This stokes the audience into fervour. It is an emotive ballad on love and the loss of it, “Love is all, from what I’ve heard, but my heart’s learned to kill”. One might posit that Matsson committed these words to paper in order to let go of these feelings. If that is the case then the irony is that due to its popularity he will forever have to sing this to his audiences. Like many in his repertoire, this song’s upbeat tempo belies the lyrics that accompany it. The chorus utilises the entirety of his nasal vocal range, “Oh, I could rise / From the harness of our goals / Here come the tears / But like always, I let them go / Just let them go.” Matsson revels in singing and sharing in past despairs – as he comes to the front of the stage, he urges the audience to sing along and with each pluck of his guitar he dips his scrawny shoulders; the hook in the chorus line is mesmerizing, “Uh oh..oh..oh.”
Matsson effusively praises a boisterous Dublin crowd. He started playing in Ireland – as many folkies do – in Whelans. The next year he moved to Vicar Street playing in June 2011. Now it seems his visits are annual as the crowd returns to the same venue this time bringing their mates and packing out the house. In between songs he repeatedly mumbles his adoration to an audience that have adopted the Swede. He bemoans the tough rigours of touring and acknowledges what keeps him going, “I don’t like to do interviews and shit like that. I want to write and sing songs for you. It’s the crowd that keep me going and now I’m in fucking Dublin!” He evens lets slip that he’d written a song that day inspired by his support act Crooked Fingers. The crowd urged him to play it. But sense prevailed as he admitted to the song being in its infancy. “The songs need practice” he explained, “I need to sit in a corner alone and fiddle with my guitar in order to make them work, make them ready for the stage and you guys. But you’ll hear it soon.”
Matsson trawled through the new album interspersing it with his back catalogue; it was at times difficult to differentiate the new material from the old but nobody minded. For a few tunes he pulled up his chair at the piano before jumping impatiently back to the front of the stage with his guitar as if he’d missed it. He wrapped up his set with ‘The King of Spain’. In the lyrics he tips his hat to Dylan, “And I wear my boots of Spanish leather” clearly an acknowledgement of Dylan’s eponymous track. It is obvious that he now carries such comparisons with ease, “Still I am not from Barcelona/ I am not even from Madrid. / I am a native of the North folk/ And that can mess up any kid.” He sings this with his distinctive rasp fully confident in his own delivery, this is after all his own hit, and he cajoles the audience into following him on the caustic chorus line, “I wannnnna beeeeeeee the King….of….Spain!!!!!” His voice is urgent; provoking feelings in the audience, moving them. The Tallest Man On Earth is comfortable being part of a folk continuum, which he simply wishes to enrich. He then gives us ‘Revelation Blues’ which is the single off the new album and leaves the stage empty with just a mike, a stool and his piano.
The inevitable encore is greeted with a cacophony of yelps from the impatient crowd. Matsson sings the title track off The Wild-Hunt before sitting at the piano once more for a cover of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’. The Swede’s art is envisioned and made far from the claustrophobic cities which he plays every night on tour but as he leaves and returns to his wild imagination his audiences are left contemplating the powerful echoes of ‘The Dreamer’.
To Just Grow Away
Love is All
I Won’t Be Found
Lost My Shape (David Bazan cover)
There’s No Leaving Now
The Sparrow and the Medicine
Burden of Tomorrow
Leading Me Now
Wind and Walls
Like the Wheel
Where Do My Bluebird Fly
King of Spain
The Wild Hunt
Graceland (Paul Simon cover)