In a world of glossy Grammy’s ceremonies, lucrative merchandising deals and TV talent shows, it’s always refreshing to come across someone who’s really done it their own way; who lives for their art and is content with their lot. Denver’s Nathaniel Rateliff is one of those people.
A modern folk singer without Mumford And Sons‘ skinny jeans; a beardy balladeer with more earthiness than Bon Iver; a more easily digestible Bill Callahan. Rateliff seems like a man who’s seen some of what he sings. Dressed in a checked shirt with a pork pie hat and an unruly beard, he’s an timeless sort of character who could’ve been lifted from a whisky-hazed bar scene from an old Americana film. Unusually, he’s flanked by a band – guitar, drums and cello – the first time he’s been accompanied for shows on these shores.
Tonight he’s promoting Falling Faster Than You Can Run, released just a week ago as the follow-up to his 2010 debut, In Memory Of Loss. It’s an emotional landfill of themes set against a Radio 2-friendly backing, with occasional glimpses of brilliance, but at times lacking the melodies to give his gorgeous, gravelly voice the space it needs to roam. When he loses it, he can be quite special – take Still Trying, with its guttural plea of “I don’t know a goddamn thing”; it’s pitched perfectly – he’s part rousing folk strummer, part old bluesman; a confused young boy battling with a frustrated, world weary old man. But that level of passion is unsustainable, and these moments act as highlights rather than blueprints.
That said, he’s a master of control, and tonight he effortlessly flits between moods and tempos; one moment evoking a campfire atmosphere with the focus on sing-along melodies and camaraderie amongst the band, the next moment playing a heart breaker of an acoustic track.
Crowd favourite You Should’ve Seen The Other Guy gives him an all too rare chance to really clear his vocal pipes, blasting out a spine-tingling wail. Different too was Closer – a song which, Rateliff reveals, he desperately wanted to include on Faster Than You Can Run, “but I could never get a decent version of it recorded”. Maybe he should’ve recorded tonight’s gig because an echoing intensity, coupled with the booze-soaked refrain of “We’re closer than we’ve ever been” was by far and away his best performance of the night.
Rateliff looks genuinely blown away by the reaction he receives; every nook and cranny of the Camden venue is occupied, with a curious mix of hipsters and folkies all hanging on his every word. His catalogue might be patchy, but when he gets it right, he gets it very right indeed. After tours with major league acts like The Lumineers, expect to see him gracing bigger stages over time. Like the man himself, his music has a timeless quality that just might get better with age.