Nathaniel Rateliff: From UMS to U.K. and beyond

Tina Hagerling/Reverb

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Leaving home is hard, sure. But finding your greatest success on a different continent is something much harder.

When Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant recently called the music of Denver troubadour Nathaniel Rateliff “empty, fragmented and poignant,” he was speaking as a fan. When asked to name five artists in his playlist “right now” (last February) Plant put Rateliff at the top.

Three months later, Rateliff was performing live on “Later with Jools Holland,” the British equivalent of “The Tonight Show,” and was nearly a household name one month after that — in the U.K., that is.

Back home in the U.S. — and even in his Baker neighborhood on the streets of south Denver — it’s a different story. More so, this weekend as the Underground Music Showcase approaches.

Last Tuesday evening, Rateliff sat undisturbed on the back patio of the Irish Rover on South Broadway. He’s a regular there, and despite some ribbing by the native Irish pub owner (“Ya got sum major plumber’s ass there, friend”), most patrons walked by without so much as noticing him.

“I’d like to be successful at home,” Rateliff said. “Still, the goal we’ve been trying to reach is to do something that’s sustainable. I’d be happy with either.”

Indeed, Rateliff’s debut, “In Memory of Loss,” sold more units in its first two weeks of release in Germany than in its entire first year in the states. And he’s played Berlin only twice.

Next weekend, the Rover is among the 25 venues in Rateliff’s own neighborhood of nine years that will host rising Colorado bands and just-breaking national acts. It’s a festival that Rateliff has played almost every year since 2005, back when the band and the sound and the scene all were very different.

Back before he was a solo artist with a name that carried any weight. Before he had a major record deal (Rounder in the U.S., Universal overseas) and was performing to crowds of 10,000. Before pub-crawling with the Grammy-nominated Mumford & Sons. It was the Hi-Dive, the Fox and the Bluebird before sold-out solo shows in Berlin, Paris and London — before famed British music rags like Mojo, Uncut and Q gave him ink. Back then, he was one of hundreds of deserving local acts gigging around Denver, waiting for it to happen, though not necessarily expecting it to.

And it still hasn’t really happened. Not here. Not yet.

“People are going to get tired of this at some point,” Rateliff said. “I gotta figure out what to do next.”

He still tours the states often, peeking his head around Colorado venues every few months. In mid-June, he shared the Fillmore stage with the aforementioned YouTube gods Mumford & Sons for a pair of sold-out nights to crowds of more than 3,500 apiece. Still, Rateliff and his mostly intact backing band, Fairchildren (formerly the Wheel), show no signs of formally leaving the city and neighborhood that watched them grow.

“My wife wants to move there (London), but I can’t abandon my band,” he says. “They’re as much a part of it as I am.”

That band — Julie Davis on upright bass and vocals, childhood friend Joseph Pope III on guitar, James Han on keys and the recent addition of Patrick Meese on drums — has sprawling, tangled roots in the Denver music scene that may, in the end, be both a blessing and a curse.

“This time next year, I think Nathaniel will be selling out the city’s larger venues, playing festivals and continuing the current trajectory,” said Scott Campbell, who owns the Larimer Lounge and works for AEG Live. “I’ve seen it happen again and again, and there is no one more deserving of success than Nathaniel.”

Campbell first heard Rateliff around 2004, back when “every club in town was wanting to book him” and his first band, Born in the Flood.

It’s that discovery factor — the investment in the not-quite-there, that separates the UMS from competing festivals.

The aim is to find artists like Rateliff, or DeVotchKa, or Pictureplane and give them a stage more fit for a “big name.” Because when no one’s looking, the real breaks come, and that obscure name, phrase or spelling splashes across the saturated music industry’s front page.

And next thing you know, you’re Nathaniel Rateliff — who will board a bittersweet transatlantic flight this week to play a festival in Scotland alongside Echo & the Bunnymen — the same weekend that his quiet Denver neighborhood hosts a music festival of its own.