Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. Red Rocks. 08.21.16
Not long after moving to Colorado, my wife and I caught Bon Iver at the Ogden Theatre. It was a memorable show in many ways, but the most exciting thing about the night was discovering a local folk singer named Nathaniel Rateliff. He was performing with The Wheel and something about his painful presence made us feel as if we were hearing the confessions of an old friend. I still have the t-shirt I bought that night, as well as the copy of Desire and Dissolving Men I picked up at the merch booth. The young man on the cover of that album is barely recognizable as the bearded, black-clad soul singer who headlined his first show at Red Rocks last night. He was just a simple songwriter with an acoustic guitar and disheveled hair back then. The mostly forgotten opening track on that CD, “Just for Me (But I Thought of You)”, includes the line “I don’t need a big stage to sing for you,” and over the next five years he proved that to be true. Whether performing with The Wheel, or with the Fairchildren, or all by his lonesome, Nathaniel Rateliff solidified his place in Denver’s local music scene, while at the same time finding favor across the country and in parts of Europe.
It wasn’t always easy though. A lot happened between taking up the drums at the age of 7 and his television debut at the age of 36. I can’t speak to the very early years (I never saw Born in the Flood or anything like that), but after the night with Bon Iver, I recall seeing him open for The Low Anthem, Chuck Ragan, and The Tallest Man on Earth (who actually conceded his headlining slot to give Rateliff more time to showcase In Memory of Loss, which had just been released). I saw him perform with the help of many local musicians, as well as sitting on a stool with nothing but a guitar and a cocktail to keep him company. He was always sporting a long-sleeved flannel (which was usually shed in favor of a deep v-neck by the end of the set), skinny jeans, and a wallet chain. Sometimes it was hard to discern where the depressing character in the song ended, and where he began.
There was one night in 2010, not long after Lost Lake Lounge had opened, when I seriously thought he was going to call it quits. He pulled up in his beat-up van, unloaded his gear, then went straight for the bar. He told me about how great it was to play in Germany, where he had achieved a certain level of fame, but how hard it was to tour the US sometimes. Even after some great press coming out of SXSW that year, I think he was still struggling to make ends meet with his music. He performed an acoustic set of Leonard Cohen songs that night. I provided him with a few ‘whiskey Red Bulls, no ice,” while he provided me (and the 40 or so others in attendance) with one of the most remarkable nights of music I have ever been a part of. That performance prompted me to write these words — “I could almost picture myself, ten years from now, telling my friends about this night. I’m sure Nathaniel will be headlining much larger venues by then.”
I had thought the Lost Lake set might be his last, but by the time it was over, I realized life just isn’t that cruel. So I wasn’t surprised when the annual local-music holiday party he always curated went on as scheduled for the next few years. It was at that party, in 2013, when I witnessed the beginning of what would catapult Nathaniel Rateliff to the next level. After a normal set of songs from the excellent Falling Faster Than You Can Run, the man in black returned with a band he introduced as The Night Sweats. That’s when everything changed. It was immediately evident to every person in the Gothic Theatre that Nathaniel Rateliff no long belonged to Denver alone; he had finally found his calling and nothing was going to contain him after that.
About a year and a half later, on August 5th, 2015, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats debuted “S.O.B.” on The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon. The response was overwhelming to say the least. Radio rotation, commercials, top billing at large festivals, and overall fame and celebrity followed. And then, exactly one year after their self-titled album hit the streets (and streaming services), Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats were welcomed home by 10,000 screaming fans, friends, and family at their first-ever headlining show at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre; thus beating my prediction of ‘much larger venues’ by a good four years. And yes, I was telling anyone who would listen about that night at the Lost Lake Lounge, when I saw him perform the songs of L. Cohen for a handful of people on a Thursday in October. Not that they could hear me though. Everyone was too busy singing and dancing and oh-oh-oh-oh-oh’ing along with the soulful, old-school rhythm & blues coming from the hometown heroes on that iconic stage.
From one extreme to the other, the man who had found comfort in solitary performances for years was not only surrounded by the six-piece Sweats, but also by the seven-piece New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band (who had decided to stick around after their opening set for Yonder Mountain the night before). A colossal circus of horns marched out in front of Stage Rock, with the Night Sweats following close behind. With the brass wind at his back, Nathaniel Rateliff returned home on his knees. Dressed all in black (from his hat, all the way down to his boots), with arms outstretched to gather all the love coming his way, Rateliff looked up at the venue like he was seeing it for the first time. Then he channeled all that love into his newfound James Brown persona.
“Good evening everybody!”
Strands of discrete white lighting bounced off saxophones, and trumpets, and even a sousaphone, as New Orleans’ best paid tribute to Colorado’s best. There was something almost religious about what was happening on that stage. Rateliff played the part of a manic preacher who would just as soon send you straight to hell as he would lift you up to the gates of heaven. When he hit those throaty, guttural notes during “I’ve Been Failing”, they sent shivers down my spine. When his feet started to stomp along with the dual percussion of “Look It Here”, I couldn’t control my own extremities from following along. The tambourine came out at one point, and while he beat it against the slip-sliding, kicking-and-screaming legs below him, his perfectly manicured beard stayed steady in front of the microphone, as if it weren’t connected to the rest of his body. Seriously, with the dancing skills that man possesses, I don’t know how he stood still on a stage for all those years before The Night Sweats.
“We are only here because of you guys tonight, so thank you so much for coming. I never thought we’d be here with all of you, so this is a truly amazing thing for us.”
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band were excused after a few songs, leaving Rateliff and his matching brothers (most of whom wore denim jackets with ‘Intentional Dickweed’ embroidered across the back) to perform “The Intro”, “Howling at Nothing”, “Wasting Time”, and “Mellow Out”; all in pure Night Sweats style. The sky was clear and the air smelled of autumn, but the red lights upon the red rocks represented the heat radiating from the stage. No one was immune to the fever either. There wasn’t a single person questioning the name of the band by that point in the evening.
“In 1998 I moved here with my best friend, Joseph Pope III on bass, and we would come out here in the middle of the night. We were just a bunch of poor kids from nowhere. Well, Missouri actually, where all poor people come from. We sat on this stage and smoked a joint and drank some wine and told each other we’d play here someday. It’s nice to be here with you guys. And it’s nice to be here with my best friend too.”
In a time when so many artists are looking to the 80’s for inspiration, Rateliff and the Night Sweats are not the only band whose vision goes back a little further, but unlike Alabama Shakes and St. Paul & The Broken Bones, and even Shakey Graves, I don’t feel like I am watching a group of musicians paying homage to the 60’s; I feel like I am watching a band perform in the 60’s. It was partially the matching outfits; it was partially the lighting; it was partially the presentation and style of dancing and all the horns, but there was something more to it than that. There was an originality on display which should have been impossible for a retro band. Having seen Rateliff perform straight-up folk music so many times in the past, I had even more reason to be skeptical of his new stage personality, but if there was a façade to have seen through, my vision must be going in my old age, because everything during the 90-minute performance seemed 100% legit to me.
“We’ve been on tour for most of the past year. We never anticipated the album would do so well. Thank you for your support for our various bands and projects. It’s good to be here with all our neighbors.”
I’m going to forgo a detailed play-by-play of the show, but I will say they performed almost the entire album, with the only exception being “I’d Be Waiting”. They also performed live staples “The Intro” and “Out on the Weekend”, as well as a new song. We were given a dance lesson before “Shake” (“four corners…side to side…a little twist, try that”) and the band was loose, free flowing, but also in flawless form the entire night.
“We get one moment tonight guys, to be together and to be one. I need you to sing with me. I need you to breaking my fucking heart! C’mon! That’s all we got is each other! We got nothing else! Break my heart! Break my heart!!!”
The ‘friends’ from New Orleans were brought back out to close the main set with “S.O.B.” (holy crap!) and it might have been the best closer I’ve ever seen at Red Rocks. People became unhinged. We broke his heart while he ours. The song was so good that it continued into the encore, with the Preservation Hall Band leading the charge. Explaining what it felt like to be there would be impracticable, but I will say Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party” was just about the only song they could have performed after the cathartic release that was “S.O.B.”; something that wouldn’t try to compete, but would act as a sort of mellowing agent to calm the nerves before sending us out into the night.
I have shared more than a few drinks with Nathaniel Rateliff over the years. I have seen him perform countless times. I have watched him follow his muse in different directions and I have witnessed him find the success I always believed he deserved. Like most people who are in any way involved in the music scene in Denver, I feel like I know Nathaniel Rateliff. So to see him use the big stage to pour gratitude and love and affection over (as well as claim friendship with) all those who have supported him was awesome.
Words are just words though. That’s not to say I felt he was anything but sincere the entire night, but there was an action that spoke louder than all those words could have; bringing Julie Davis on stage mid-set, and almost breaking into tears when doing so, was really something special. “We’re going to play you a couple songs from back in the day.” As much as I love The Night Sweats material, hearing “Early Spring Till” and “You Should’ve Seen the Other Guy” made me remember why I fell him love with Rateliff’s music in the first place. It was at that point it really hit home; he was the same indie folkster I’d discovered in 2009. And he was headlining Red Rocks! Julie Davis’ angelic voice merged with his, as it had at the Bluebird and Gothic so many times before, while she plucked the strings of her stand-up bass. There was air of melancholy around Nathaniel, just as there had been at the Ogden and Fox so many times before, while he strummed his acoustic guitar. And while it was obvious he didn’t need a big stage to sing for us, it was also obvious it was exactly where he was supposed to be.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band intro
I’ve Been Failing
Look It Here
Howling at Nothing
Early Spring Till
You Should’ve Seen the Other Guy
I Need Never Get Old
Out on the Weekend
I Did It
Trying So Hard Not to Know
Having a Party