Summer weekends in the Twin Cities are so cool if you can stay vertical. Sunday was chock full of great bands playing around town. Enough to satisfy any hardcore music fan. After a long afternoon and early evening at the Red Stag Block Party seeing a number of truly great local bands, it was time to head to The Palace for a sold out Nathaniel Rateliff show. While I waited for the always professional and friendly Palace staff to sort out my ticket confusion, I was kicking myself for not stopping for coffee or a 5 Hour Energy dose. I remember thinking it was going to be long night, despite being really excited about the show.
I made it to my seat a bit before opener Israel Nash hit the stage. I was happy to make the acquaintance of one of the VP’s of Rateliff’s label. He was a wide ranging music fan and font of anecdotes regarding the night’s featured band. Attending shows solo is always an interesting experience. Sometimes there’s a well meaning idiot who sees your notebook and decides to provide non stop color commentary. Sometimes you run into somebody who is friendly, interesting and on the same page as you are. By the time Nash commenced, my outlook on the evening began to swing in a positive direction, coffee or no.
Nash is a young artist originally hailing from small town Missouri who moved to the Big Apple for a 5 year stint before settling down in Dripping Springs, TX outside Austin in late 2011. I was vaguely familiar with the band from some airplay on The Current but not at all prepared for what they were all about. Too often, the opening band is a time filler: an artist with a song or two worth hearing that’s caught some kind of local or regional attention. Not the case here. I could have listened to Israel Nash all night.
Perhaps the best way to describe his band is that it is fully realized. To begin with, Nash is a really fine singer with a remarkable ability to reach the higher end of the register without sounding emasculated. He pounds along on his guitar flanked by band mates Joey McClellan and Eric Swanson on lead and pedal steel, respectively. Both were hot as a Texas summer. My notes are littered with comments about McClellan being the real deal who gave the band the ability to really dig in and snarl. A rhythm section of Aaron McClellan on bass and Josh Fleischmann on drums provided the structure to let the band’s big, expansive sound room to roam. As the show progressed, I kept hearing echoes of some of the best of Neal Young’s Crazy Horse. One song near the end of the set would have fit just fine on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. And that’s saying a lot.
What made Nash the perfect opener for The Night Sweats was the band’s chemistry and authenticity. Sitting in the audience you could feel the musicians feeding off each other and sharing their joy. I always enjoy seeing a band leader hand off a solo to someone else and then turn to the rhythm section to just drop into the groove. The Palace features a big stage but his band was set up in front of the headliner’s lay out. I wished he’d had more room to move because nobody wanted to dance and revel in his genre bending alt country, open spaces, rock style than Israel Nash.
He headlines his own Turf Club show on September 20. I wouldn’t miss it. Nor would my rock and roll buddy Mark who unbeknownst to me, was in attendance. I received a text saying: ” Israel Nash. Opener for Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. Great sound!”
By the time The Night Sweats appeared, the Palace crowd was fully amped and ready to roll. Man, I’m here to tell you, that band sure delivered! Where oh where has American Soul music gone? Thank goodness for Nathaniel Rateliff.
About two or three songs in I turned to the record exec and mentioned that I could hear pure Stax Records dripping off the sound. Somebody was a genius to come up with the brilliant idea of incorporating that formula; to try to (successfully) capture that vibe. He laughed and flashed a Stax Records t-shirt beneath his button down. He confirmed: “It sure does, doesn’t it?”
Look. Neo-soul is a genre that’s making a comeback. In fact, the Twin Cities is a bit of a hotbed for the resurgence. But nobody is doing it as authentically, as amplified and consistently as Nathaniel Rateliff. One should not diminish the band’s sound as “blue-eyed soul”. It’s more than that. There was a very excited (and intoxicated) fan on my other side who kept howling with delight and comparing the band to the Blues Brothers. Hey gang, they were a wonderful band, just like The Commitments. The spitting image of blue-eyed soul. But those bands were a bunch of great studio musicians who wanted to: emulate, honor, cover, choose your own term, all those Motown/Soul greats. Nathaniel Rateliff isn’t that. He and that band simply are. And they’re carving out their own spot in that hierarchy.
Despite that, categorizing the band in any particular genre is a bit dangerous. Over the years Rateliff has experimented with a number of styles. There’s little question these guys grew up playing raucous rock and roll. However, according to childhood friend and bass player Joseph Pope III, that old school soul sound was critically important to his friend growing up. In many ways, it was where he was most authentic.
This band looks cool. Sounds strange to say that. Nobody got their spot in the band because of their Hollywood looks. But who would have thought that a bunch of bearded white dudes in denim, beat up cowboy boots and hats from a Sergio Leone western hammering out old school soul would work? But it sure does. Perhaps it’s because that 8 piece band is feeding off each other. Perhaps it’s because they all look like they belong together. If they weren’t The Night Sweats standing on the stage in front of you it would be easy to imagine them members of a loyal, middle age softball team. Or the mechanics at your local garage. So it isn’t about a slick image. It’s more like a bunch of musicians taking on a common look over time in pursuit of a common goal.
From the opening tune up, with Rateliff walking out late and dropping into Shoe Boot, things continued to escalate with keyboard player Mark Schusterman getting the crowd clapping for Be There. So when that first big hit Look It Here rolled out third in the list,the Palace Crowd was fully engaged and already in dance mode.
With little banter or wasted time the band kept up the tempo. The only time Rateliff really stepped out of music first was his intro to Say It Louder. He informed the audience that he’d written the song as encouragement to all the young people who were standing up to demand better school safety. “All they want is a safe place to go to learn. Is that too much to ask?”
In this day and age when bands no longer make money selling albums and must rely on touring to make ends meet, it seems only the biggest stars hit the road without cutting some corners or trying to use technology to fill in the gaps, The Night Sweats have gone the opposite direction. It takes a bit longer to get that big sound locked in. That road worn tightness that was a hallmark of all those earlier stars only comes with time. But this “new break-out band” has been touring relentlessly for a handful of years now. It shows.
Bass player Pope has been Rateliff’s running mate since back in the day of driving the Missouri back roads some 24 years ago. He was a joy to watch with his distinctive, animated style. Mark Schusterman on keys and Luke Mossman on lead guitar provided that Memphis sound whether it was piano, Hammond B3 or clean Fender guitar tones. Patrick Meese on drums was the engine, pounding out the tempos that seemed to directly connect to your heart beat; to cause your body to move.
Who tours with a high end 3 piece horn section any more? Andy Wild, Wes Watkins and Scott Frock are absolutely key to that signature Night Sweats sound. Often, horns are only inserted where needed, in a back up role. In NRNS, these guys are every bit as integral as the guitars.
The center of the stage belonged exclusively to Rateliff. Whether playing electric guitar, acoustic or simply banging a tambourine, singing and dancing, he’s the unquestioned ring leader. He’s a performer who gets lost in the music. You can literally see the energy lift him up and move him. At the conclusion of a few of songs, the joy on his face was apparent and there seemed no way to contain his enthusiasm. Following a particularly funky rendition of Coolin’ Out he launched his Telecaster stage left 30 feet into the air. Hopefully, to be snagged by an alert stage hand. It was as though he was he saying: “We’re so far out here on the damn edge right now, let’s see you do your part!” A pair of tambourines met their demise as he slammed them to the floor, shattering them into pieces. Much to the delight of keyboard player Schusterman.
I wondered if what we were seeing was just another night on the tour or if something special was going on. I asked the label guy and he admitted this was a special night. Locally, we think of this band as huge. They sold out a large venue quickly. But this is still a band in the process of breaking out. The nightly venues are not yet all on a par with The Palace (truthfully, how many really are?). While kings of their local Denver scene where they can sell out Red Rocks, the Twin Cities audience is early to the party. We can thank The Current for spinning three of the tunes from the debut. And then continuing to saturate the airwaves with songs from Tearing At The Seams. It’s a love affair so typical of Twin Cities fans. They adopt a band early and claim them for their own. The Night Sweats could definitely feel it and did their best to reciprocate.
As I tried to wrap my mind around comparisons, not just in terms of sound, sights and energy, I kept coming back to Springsteen and The E Street band. I am not putting these guys on the same plane as The Boss. But notice that I did just put them in the same breath. There was just something about this “clear the stage and let the Man work” backed by a big, fully engaged band, coming at you song after song that brought back memories of my first time seeing Springsteen in the late 70’s. It’s an authenticity and commitment, an attitude that they can, in fact, save the world one night at a time through rock and roll.
So maybe it was only appropriate that after closing down the main set with S.O.B/I Can’t Get Clean (was the audience ready for that or what?) the band returned with a cathartic rendition of Springsteen’s Atlantic City. That was enough. Nathaniel Rateliff gave us everything he had. The Palace was worn out. Most of us left trying to figure out how to weasel our way into the next day’s Micro Show at The Turf before concluding: Good luck with that!
Somewhere up there Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett were smiling ear to ear.