I got some flack from a friend the other week when I all but anointed local boy Joe Pug the savior of folk music. His counterargument—aside from my insinuation being broad to the point of inanity—was a Swedish rambler by the name of Kristian Matsson, otherwise known as The Tallest Man on Earth. Matsson opened for John Vanderslice Tuesday night at The Black Cat.
Vanderslice is a talented musician who, with the help of other talented musicians, performed a repertoire rich with rollicking, smartly arranged pop-rock songs. Between songs he kept it light and affable, complimenting a blueberry pie an audience member had baked for the band and asking to check out some guy in the front row’s camera. But there was no upstaging Matsson, whose stage presence combined the quirk of a street mime with the brimstone of a tent revivalist to create something weird and very moving.
Matsson’s moniker is farce; the man is exceptionally short, his Swedish blood notwithstanding. I would put him at 5’5″, tops. He wore a pale-blue collared button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up high. His visage was youthful and almost Elven: high cheekbones, dark playful eyes, a fastidious little mustache clinging to his upper lip, and a carefully sculpted duck’s-ass coiffuer. At first glance, Matsson appeared less a towering titan than an ex-jockey on his way to audition for Grease.
In the song “The Gardener,” Matsson hinted at the origin of his superlative stage name:
I know the runner’s going to tell you
There ain’t no cowboy in my hair
So now he’s buried by the daisies
So I could stay the tallest man in your eyes, babe
Here, size is not a measure of dimensions but of presence; and in this regard, Matsson looms large indeed. His masterful guitar-playing would be spectacle enough, but Matsson was not content to merely sit back and croon. He would march around the stage, kneel as if praying, scoop with his guitar neck as if seining a tidal pool for minnows, and gaze at individual audience members for many moments at a time as if to transmit, telekinetically, some urgent message. (This made his guitar work all the more impressive. Matsson’s compositions are extremely technical: He switched into a new tuning after—and sometimes during—most songs. That he was so precise in his finger-picking amid his theatrics was uncanny. Even the tuning was made into a droll exhibition.)
When Matsson did speak, he did so sparingly and never comprehensibly. Sometimes he would approach the mic as if to speak and then back away, like a rodent poking suspiciously at a crust of bread—an affected shyness that seemed to parody the persona that one might, on first glance, presume him to have. Then he’d start picking a bright riff and unleash a nose-full-of-brambles Delta bray, as if suddenly cohabitated by the ghosts of Mississippi John Hurt and Howlin’ Wolf. Never judge a diminutive Swedish folkie by its cover—or stature.
That brings us back to Pug and the question of folk’s inheritance. In the interest of appeasing those who might have shared my friend’s complaint, let me be clear: Folk is not a homogeneous genre. In the strictest sense, it doesn’t even have a defining sound; it needs only to be rooted in the tradition of the common people of a certain land or region. For reasons Alexis de Tocqueville might be more apt than I to explain, American folk—especially that of the 20th Century—has been heavily influenced by politics. Folk music has been vehicle for describing the plight of the common man in all its forms. But in democratic conditions, this exercise takes on new meaning: describing the plight of the common man, where it once meant merely taking ownership of one’s lot, now implies a call for change. This seems to be the strain of American folk Pug has tapped into with Nation of Heat.
But there is another strain of folk, one that is tied to the land and the yeoman (both of which Tocqueville described as meticulously as Americans’ political tendencies). This is where Matsson stakes his claim. His lyrics are more backwoods, full of landscapes, seasons, flora and fauna (moles, snakes, foxes, eagles—even a unicorn!), and the elements. His characters are dreamers, and his descriptions of love and loss and playfulness and unease are rooted firmly in the rural aesthetic. Consider:
I’m gonna float up in the ceiling
I built a levee of the stars
And in my field of tired horses
I built a freeway through this farce
Well if I ever get that slumber
I’ll be that mole deep in the ground
And I won’t be found
These are the sort of lyrics that are littered all over The Tallest Man on Earth’s debut LP, Shallow Grave. If Pug’s folk is the poetry of association, Matsson’s is the poetry of remove.
Ironically, the highlight of his performance Tuesday (aside from an arresting cover of the Irish folk standard “Moonshiner”) was probably the song with the most political imagery: an upbeat strummer called “The King of Spain”:
…I wear my boots of Spanish leather
Oh, while I’m tightening my crown
I’ll disappear in some Flamenco
Perhaps I’ll reach the other side
Why are you stamping my illusion
Just ’cause I stole some eagle’s wings
Because you named me as your lover
Like all I could be anything
Well, if you reinvent my name
Well, if you redirect my day
I wanna be the king of Spain
The song is a celebration of masquerade and ambition: an appropriate choice for the undersized Swede to belt out at the conclusion of a show during which he transformed from a droll little sideshow to the tallest man in our eyes.
Here’s Matsson performing elsewhere: