Nathaniel Rateliff at Lost Lake Lounge, 10/21/10
10.21.10 | Lost Lake Lounge
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."