Music Festivals

SXSW 2010: Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire and Nathaniel Rateliff

Nathaniel Rateliff | Ale House | 9 p.m. Clinging to the Trees | Mohawk | 8:20 p.m.

Nathaniel Rateliff was clearly being glib last night when he asked "Is that why you're being so quiet, because you know me?" upon getting a roar of approval when he announced that he was Denver. But you can hardly blame him. The response he received mirrored the one he typically gets back home. Actually, take that back. Not sure he's ever garnered this much respect at home.

But this wasn't the Mile High City, and scanning the crowd, there was scant familiar faces. This room was populated by folks from parts unknown, and they were eating this shit up. Seriously. He had their rapt attention. And the quieter his songs got, the quieter they got, which is strange for a SXSW crowd -- especially on the first night of the fest, when everyone's getting warmed up with their first drinks of the week, not to mention on St. Patrick's Day proper.

So yeah, the reception one of Denver's most sacred cows received from a non hometown crowd was a bit stunning. After all, this was no coffee house; this was a bar with an entrance through the alley. Just prior to his set, you could hear swelling din of dozens of simultaneous, indistinct conversations pouring out of the place. When he was playing -- as cliched as it sounds -- you really could hear a pin drop.

What made this sight even more impressive was that his backing band -- formerly known as the Wheel and featuring Julie Davis on standup and backing vocals, Joseph Pope III on guitar/backing vocals, Aaron Collins on keys and Ben Desoto on drums -- played with such notable restraint that he essentially wooed the crowd with just his voice and his guitar.

It was a stark contrast from two years ago when he played a similar sized room with his band, Born in the Flood, which plays with far more bombast, and that set inspired about as many shrugs as applause. So how he's being received now should speak volumes to both the strength of the material he's playing now, as well as his talent.

On the eve of his national introduction -- Rateliff's forthcoming debut on Rounder Records is due next month -- even as he's being touted by his press handlers in the same league as Bon Iver and Jeff Buckley, he's proven himself worthy of such comparisons. If for no other reason than when you see him, when you hear that voice of his, you get a similar sense that you're experiencing something unique and special.

Rateliff has at least three more shows here this week. And so far he's off to an impressive start. If he keeps this up, he's going to leave Austin with plenty of new fans.

Rateliff's set served as a bit of a palate cleanser after seeing Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire, Denver grind core at its absolute finest. Less than twenty minutes earlier, this band, led by Ethan McCarthy, had set up shop inside a place called Mohawk, which was only a few steps above the dank warehouse where we first saw the gents a few years ago (more pretty pictures on the wall and beer available on tap rather than suitcase).

Evidently, though, no one bothered to point this out to McCarthy -- you know, that he's in a proper venue and all, with a stage -- for he had planted himself on the floor, eye to eye with us, in front of said stage. Caught four or five songs from the outfit, whose rancorous sound, although rapturous to some of us, is, admittedly, what most folks would consider an acquired taste -- and that's if they're being nice. Fact is, the brand of extreme metal these fellas are playing takes a discerning ear to truly appreciate.

For the uninitiated (read: most of the population), it sounds like so much noise, in which one song is ultimately indistinguishable from the next. That's what the expression a few exasperated onlookers said as they left the room shaking their heads after just a few songs.

No matter, plenty of people stayed to watch McCarthy hunched over, summoning the most demonic wail you've ever heard, and then taking turns screaming indiscriminately at his shoes, the ground, us and a portrait of some distinguished looking mustachioed chap on the wall next to the stage. Wisely, no one answered.

Behind him, his bandmates sprayed the room with a non-stop barrage of chugging shrapnel. Those assembled, around twenty engrossed people or so, can hear the subtle nuances in the music, from the squeal of the guitars to the blast beats, and that's who this music is made for anyway.