"Shut up!" demanded one rather surly fellow somewhere in the balcony. In a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease, the indignant exhortation came during the opening strains of "When You're Here," which Nathaniel Rateliff opened his Bluebird show with, flanked by his loyal, seemingly ever-present bandmates and friends, Joseph Pope III and Julie Davis. As the scolding reverberated across the theater at a level precisely ten times the volume of the incidental chatter it was feebly trying to quash, Rateliff appeared unphased as he delivered his distinctly gentle melodies with remarkable finesse.
But the admonishment fell on mostly deaf ears. Literally. As Rateliff and his bandmates, who were in also in dependably fine form -- particularly drummer Ben DeSoto, who played with notable aplomb; displaying a keen sense of dynamics, he guided the songs deftly from delicate passages into bombastic crescendos and back again -- made their way through the finer moments of Rateliff's splendid catalog, the incessant yammering inexplicably continued.
And it was inexplicable. Here was one of finest singer-songwriters this city has ever produced, playing an intimate show for a sold out hometown crowd, turning in one of his most exceptional and moving performances to date, and yet somehow this still wasn't enough to inspire some folks to hold their tongue.
While it would be remiss to indict the entire audience -- the closer you got to the stage, the more captivated and appreciative folks were -- this was indeed one of the most talkative, irreverent crowds in recent memory. Although in reality it was probably just a few bad apples, those few spoiled the whole bunch, as they say.
Sadly, in contrast, just a few months ago in front of a mostly uninitiated crowd at South By Southwest, Rateliff received a completely venerating response -- in a previously noisy pub during the first night of the most notoriously drunken music fest in the country, when you'd almost expect folks to be chatty.
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What's more, amazingly, on the same Bluebird stage just a few months prior, Matt Morris turned in a performance that was honestly no less enthralling, and on that night, folks made an effort to breathe quietly so as not to disrupt. Just the same, if Rateliff was bothered by the willful displays of disrespect, he didn't show it. At all -- well, except, perhaps, for a quip he made before "Oil & Lavender," in which he offered, "This is the intimate part of the show. It only lasts a few songs."
Rateliff's voice has never sounded better, and his poise on stage last night was unmistakable. The set brimmed with his best songs, a good of portion of which drew from his new album, In Memory of Loss, such as "Wimper and Wail," "Brakeman," "Oil & Lavender," "You Should've Seen the Other Guy" and "Early Spring Till," as well as older songs such as "Bumps and Bruises," from the Wheel's self-released album, Desire and Dissolving Men, and unreleased tunes like "Laughing."
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But it was the unreleased closer, "Shroud," that really took everyone's breath away, with Davis and Pope offering up sublime harmonies, bolstering Rateliff's stunning falsetto and vein-popping wail. It was almost like Rateliff purposefully ended on a high note as if to say, "Y'all want to talk? I'll give you something talk about."
If only, right? We know this not to be true, of course, since Rateliff has ended a number of his recent sets -- his Daytrotter session, at least one set on the Barnstormers tour, as well as his recent in-store at Twist & Shout -- with "Shroud." Regardless, Rateliff gave us all plenty to talk about.
CRITICS NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I'll never understand people who make the effort to come out to a show, only to spend the entire time talking. What's the point? By the Way: The Tallest Man on Earth is so not even close. Only caught part of his set (and missed Joe Sampson's entirely), but what I saw was pretty enjoyable. He has a unique voice. Not sure about the Sade cover. Random Detail: Funnyman Josh Blue was at the show.