Nathaniel Rateliff struck a delicate musical balance in his tribute to Leonard Cohen Thursday at the Lost Lake Lounge. His two-part solo performance spanned several albums and eras from Cohen's storied musical career. Armed simply with a nylon-stringed guitar, a music stand and a thick ream of transcriptions, Rateliff offered covers from 1968's Songs, 1969's Songs from a Room and lesser known albums like Live Songs from 1973.
The first part of the set featured a string from the 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate, a playlist that included "Avalanche," "Last Year's Man" and "Dress Rehearsal Rag." It was an ambitious performance, a tribute that showed a respect for the original material, while, at the same time, leaving room for the inimitable stamp of Rateliff's own creativity and interpretation. The balance was subtle, but well honed enough to please hard-core fans of Cohen and Rateliff alike.
Rateliff's attention to detail in recreating the original material was spot-on, especially in his guitar work. Indeed, his finger picking patterns on tunes like "Love Calls You By Name" and "Famous Blue Raincoat" were impeccable echoes of Cohen's guitar playing on the album versions. Similarly, Rateliff's vocals seemed more understated and reserved than usual, an effect that summoned Cohen's trademark singing style to a degree that was downright eerie.
The personal touches and Rateliff's additions to the material seemed more subtle, coming in nuanced turns of phrases, slightly different pronunciations or elocutions on key lines. He also added an interpretive twist in his fundamental choice of format; Rateliff's stark, minimalistic takes on Cohen's songs lacked the full ensembles and the lush musical effects of some of the albums.
The covers of "Avalanche" and "Last Year's Man," for example, lacked the haunting children's chorus present on Songs of Love and Hate; the rendition of "Famous Blue Raincoat" lacked the resonant string solos in the middle; Rateliff's version of "Who By Fire" featured a vocal improvisation in lieu of the driving stringed instruments as an outro.
Sometimes, the minimalism worked well, bringing out the underlying beauty and brilliance of the original material. At others, the stripped down versions were more a reminder of the power of the original, recorded versions.
For example, "Iodine," from 1977's Death of a Ladies' Man, seemed an ideal vehicle for Rateliff's interpretation. He harnessed Cohen's subtlety while adding his own skill at emotional earnestness; he used the stripped down format to his advantage, adding a chilling weight to lines like, "Yes I was with you, o sweet compassion/Compassion with the sting of iodine."
The interpretation of "Diamonds in the Mine" from Songs of Love and Hate, meanwhile, seemed too stark, too passive. The unabashed aggression and anger of the original version was absent; lines like, "Some very clever doctor must have sterilized the bitch," just didn't have the same force in Rateliff's reimagining.
But even the failed experiments could be forgiven, considering the setting and considering the format. The performance, offered in a small bar to a capacity crowd that was consistently rapt, had the feel of a casual tribute, a loving paean to a master lyricist and songwriter. When Rateliff announced he wouldn't be able to manage "Lady Midnight," for example, no one seemed disappointed. He quickly moved on to "Take This Longing" instead.
The easygoing mood came in part from Rateliff's setup: He was constantly scanning paper sheets for the considerably lengthy lyrics ("The Stranger Song" from Songs, for example, boasts ten verses). Even with the constant reading, the effect wasn't at all distracting. Sure, there were a few flubbed chords and a couple of missed French verses during "The Partisan," but Rateliff offered a consistent and powerful set.
Combined with the relative obscurity of some of the selections, Rateliff's careful, nuanced performance revealed a real love for the source material. Hardcore Cohen fans in the crowd sang along, and even the uninitiated seemed transfixed.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: Songs of Love and Hate is easily one of my favorite Leonard Cohen albums. Hearing a suite of six songs from the record was an ideal show opener for me. Random Detail: Rateliff's longtime guitarist Joseph Pope III was in the crowd for the second set, standing alongside Patrick Meese. Pope stood with a drink in his hand, his head back, his eyes closed, seemingly transported by Rateliff's solo performance. By The Way: Rateliff's voice is even more haunting and entrancing with the right amount of reverb on the PA.
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Nathaniel Rateliff 10.21.10 | Lost Lake Lounge Denver, CO
SET ONE 1. Avalanche 2. Last Year's Man 3. Dress Rehearsal Rag 4. Diamonds in the Mine 5. Love Calls You By Name 6. Famous Blue Raincoat 7. The Partisan 8. Iodine
SET TWO 1. Passing Through 2. You Know Who I Am 3. Bird On a Wire 4. Seems So Long Ago, Nancy 5. Story of Isaac 6. Tonight Will Be Fine 7. Take This Longing 8. Who By Fire 9. I Tried to Leave You 10. Stranger Song