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Head and Shoulders Above the Rest: The Tallest Man On Earth At Park West

By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 27, 2010 9:05PM

A fantastic show earlier this spring and a memorable opening slot at Pitchfork this summer has left us with some pretty immodest praise for Sweden's The Tallest Man On Earth (known informally as Kristian Matsson). If last week's sold out show at The Park West was any indication, the rest of Chicago hasn't tired of The Tallest Man On Earth either, even with a set list and stage banter that has remained mostly unchanged.

Bon Iver drummer Sean Carey started off the night, opening with a set of haunting percussive arrangements that served as a complement to Matsson's charging, rhythmic guitar later on. Carey's four-piece ensemble, complete with upright bass, drew the crowd in to establish an atmosphere more intimate than the one normally found at the Park West.

Once Matsson emerged onstage, he couldn't make up his mind between sitting and standing while he cycled through no fewer than four guitars during the night. The diminutive Swede issued the same endearing, rambling apology he did at his previous shows, noting the "craziness" of his tour and that he hasn't slept in days. True as it was, it didn't lessen Matsson's enthusiasm but could explain the almost manic can't-sit-still energy that propels his one-man show.

Throughout tracks "I Won't Be Found," "Pistol Dreams" and "The Wild Hunt," Matsson filled out the space with his rich, tonal guitar work and the flourishes (both physical and musical) that make him such an engaging live presence. The sparkling melody of "King of Spain" floated under Matsson's gravely vocals that changed with elastic movement from mourning, to wistful to striding to jubilant.

Often compared to Bob Dylan vocally, Matsson is able to keep a brightness and liveliness in his songs, even when an undercurrent of moodiness that runs through them. His thick accent makes him a challenge to decipher when he's firing off his quick mumblings (think Benicio del Toro in "Snatch"), though in between his profuse thanks to the crowd, we caught enough to hear him say "you guys are always so nice to me!"

The crowd's good manner held steady even after Matsson blew out a PA in the middle of his 90-minute set; he played through the drop in volume, and had help from the audience in singing "The Gardener." Cheers erupted when the full sound returned, though we doubt much could have dampened either the crowd or Matsson's vibe. The tech glitches and instrument changes can cause artists to flub, especially when the pressure is even higher when playing solo. Charming and fun, Matsson was too comfortable of performer to let those setbacks snag him; it only occurred to us during this show that he's an incredibly hard worker onstage, even though he makes it look effortless. The fine combination of Matsson's talent and hustle make it safe to say that there are few acts around easier to enjoy than his.