Peppering the set of rustically fine alt-folk music by the artist known as The Tallest Man on Earth last Monday at SOhO were running jokes about the presumably “frigid” temperatures in pre-Christmas Santa Barbara. “I hear it was cold here today,” joked the neo-folkie, who sounds American, but is 100 percent Swedish. “You should try Sweden. We have polar bears in Sweden.” He suddenly seemed sheepish and apologetic about his attempt at humor, muttering “sorry, sorry,” as he continued tuning. Next song.
In that charming moment, surrounded by his striking examples of old school folk singing and muscular finger-pickin’ good guitar, we got a taste of the elusive Swedish artistic temperament. Swedes are kindly, cool, polite, and can also boast sly humor and creative insight. What is it with these Swedes, anyway? They have been showing up in town lately, in the form of TMOE’s potent show, and the intrinsically hip electro-soul group Little Dragon (also at SOhO), following a show at the Mercury Lounge last spring. As well, they have been showing up a lot of their stateside competition.
Said Tallest Man is, in fact, Kristian Matsson of Dalarna, Sweden. Also part of a band, the Montezumas, Matsson exerts an impressive, self-contained force of his own musical volition as a solo artist. At SOhO, the wiry, tousle-haired Swede naturally seized the spotlight with a charisma both immediate and engagingly weird. He’s a good and propulsive finger-style guitarist who likes to choke his capo up high on the fretboard, making his picking in sync with his high, pinched voice. The sounds can remind us of a young Bob Dylan, or of Damien Rice’s limber voice, but wih a more rough emotive approach.
Among the standout tunes in his set were “Where Do My Bluebird Fly,” “Shallow Grave,” and “King of Spain.” His songs can turn light and dark, without warning. For instance, “Pistol Dreams” is a cheerful, hopeful-sounding mouthful of words and percolating guitar tones. Launching into “The Blizzard’s Never Seen the Desert Sand” gave him another ripe opportunity to tease us about our relative weather wimpiness: “It’s hard to tune in this cold weather. I know you guys are suffering. I don’t mean to be sarcastic. I love it here. Does anybody want to take me in for awhile?”
But as The Tallest Man on Earth reconfigured to a low tuning for the evening’s goodnight song, cooing the refrain “to roam o’er this wide world alone,” we got the sense – even if it’s a carefully crafted show biz illusion – that the road is his friend, in that old wandering troubadour kind of way. Call him “Dylan-esque” if you have to, but this guy sounds like a real deal, whose roots go deeper that Bob, and whose detachment from and deep involvement in American culture have served him well.