Channeling Bob Dylan, Kristian Matsson belted out some soulful hits during his performance at the Catalyst on May 22. Photo by Jasper Lyons.
Channeling Bob Dylan, Kristian Matsson belted out some soulful hits during his performance at the Catalyst on May 22. Photo by Jasper Lyons.

Taped above the low-hanging back door of the Catalyst’s main stage is a sign that reads “HIT HEAD HERE.” Last Friday night, after a rousing opening set by the Pittsboro, North Carolina folk rockers Hiss Golden Messenger and a restless 30-minute intermission, singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson and his four-piece band emerged from the green room and entered the stage through that door. Fortunately, none of the men hit their heads on the way in.

The audience, a sea of plaid, flannel and beanie-clad Santa Cruz residents of all ages, burst into deafening applause and cheers as Matsson, a Swedish native best known by his fans as The Tallest Man on Earth, was handed the first of many guitars he would play throughout the night. The band started with “Fields of Our Home,” the uplifting opening track from Matsson’s newest album “Dark Bird Is Home.”

Santa Cruz was the second stop on the band’s five-month and 49-city tour following Thursday’s kickoff performance at Oakland’s Fox Theater.

Matsson’s repertoire, though initially conceived as an acoustic solo act, was complemented well by his quartet, which included Bon Iver collaborators Mike Lewis and Mike Noyce. The band switched between its respective instruments as frequently as Matsson switched guitars, accompanying him on electric guitar, electric bass, tenor saxophone, violin, viola, keyboards, pedal steel and drums.

This dynamic added fresh flavors to the songs, which focused on longing, heartbreak and returning home, and contributed to an extra dimension of engagement with the hundreds of concertgoers.

This isn’t to say that Matsson relied too heavily on the expanded sound his band provided. His presence could be felt from the back of the packed concert hall, and his performance was as theatrical as his songs were cathartic. The stationary microphone seemed more cumbersome than anything else for the performer, and as far as I could tell, he only stood in front of it long enough to sing his lyrics. He spent the rest of the concert moving around the stage with crackling energy and occasionally staring off into the audience without really looking at anyone in particular.

Photo by Dylan Foster.
Photo by Dylan Foster.

Music journalists — professional and amateur alike — have likened Matsson’s style and subject matter to that of folk giants Bob Dylan and Nick Drake. Despite his (and my) misgivings with these comparisons, I understand where those journalists are coming from.

His fascination with the pastoral, combined with his considerable fingerpicking skill and tendency toward open chord tunings, which required multiple guitars in specific tunings, feels in many ways like a logical progression of the folk milieu cultivated in the ‘60s and ‘70s, albeit with a stronger emphasis on production value and a less experimental approach.

After seeing him live, however, I would argue that his on-stage persona is much closer to Elvis Presley’s. His “Jailhouse Rock” dance moves and youthful energy brought to mind a more classic rock ‘n’ roll archetype, more enthusiastic than brooding. More than a few times, a group of girls standing next to me sighed when he smiled in our general direction.

In one exchange toward the beginning of the set, an audience member drunkenly cried out during a transition between songs, to which Matsson responded with a bewildered expression that made the rest of the audience laugh.

This exchange epitomized Matsson’s most remarkable quality as a performer. Despite all of his showmanship and charisma, there were moments where it seemed he had forgotten about the audience altogether. At no point did he just play his guitar or sing his lyrics. Each song seemed to consume him entirely, like a story that he had not only forgotten he was telling, but that he had forgotten was a story.

The 100-minute set concluded with an encore of the gently somber “Like the Wheel,” to which Matsson’s band set aside its instruments to accompany him as a vocal quartet. The true power of the closing song was not found in a loud, climactic finish as with most concerts, but in the few seconds when the scattered ambient noise — the shouts and whistles from the audience and bar — died away and we all just listened. That level of focus, which I believe to be the greatest honor a folk musician can receive, is what will stay with me the longest.