When I read his announcement on Twitter on August 22, hours before his Denver gig, I had to wonder if he'd make it to opening night of his homecoming stand.
As it turned out, he loves Denver, in sickness and in health.
"These two nights are the most important nights of our year," he told the audience at Red Rocks on Wednesday, August 22. “I’ve got to be honest with you: I’ve been sick. We had to cancel a show last night.”
Sick? Outside of tweeting about it and telling us, nobody would have known he wasn't feeling well. He played as frenzied as ever, belting out songs with those signature stirring harmonies, borrowing from soul legends, country stars, rockers and folkies alike to create something entirely his own. It was a hometown performance that had the crowd singing along as loud as we could — miraculously in tune.
Of course he played "S.O.B.," to fans' delight. And he sang "Hey, Mama," a song for his mother, who was in the crowd, and for the mothers of his bandmates, who were also there — talk about a tear-jerker. Every tune he played, the audience loved, especially an inexplicably endearing overgrown frat boy standing in the row below me who embodied gusto: He smoked weed with gusto, drank with gusto and sang along to every word, flailing his arms to the bemusement of his friends, all with gusto. Normally I loathe bros, but this one was divine.
When Rateliff came out for the encore, he confessed he was losing his voice and would have to call it early. He apologized — which was not necessary for the enthusiastic hometown crowd. With all the bands that come to town and ditch out on Denver because they're not feeling well, sucking it up and playing is yet one more example of how exceptionally generous Rateliff is to this city.
He's an alchemist, making spirit-quaking music from despair. Hearing him is a gift to anyone lucky enough to experience his songs, let alone his live performances, whether at City, O' City's opening back in the day or at Red Rocks last night.
Take that hit song "S.O.B," the first that turned heads around the world toward the Night Sweats. When I first heard it, I couldn't decide if I loved it for its vulnerability, its soulful sound, its sing-a-long chorus and bridge, or if I was irritated that the singer-songwriter — whose earnest music and poetic lyrics had held me through spells of depression — had turned into yet another culture vulture ripping off historically black music.
The band of largely white musicians did have one black member in its first few years: the multi-talented musical force Wes Watkins, whose contributions to so many Denver music projects cannot be overstated. Then he left the band just before Rateliff's 2016 Red Rocks show, to the dismay of fans. His wild performance style only added to the Night Sweats' image.
Rateliff's loss, but no matter. Watkins's quality as a player and performer is positioning him to blow up on his own terms with his own music, and nobody should feel bad about that. And whatever led to his departure, I was delighted to see him at last night's concert, showing up for his old band.
Despite Watkins's absence on stage — along with the absence of black members in the soul band — Rateliff has proved to be respectful of the genre's tradition, collaborating with the Roots and Chuck Berry's family members, honoring the late rock-and-roll legend shortly after his death. In the spring, he performed at the Grand Ole Opry and the Apollo Theater.
Rateliff's opening act Wednesday night was the rising New Orleans sensation Tank and the Bangas, who brought a genre-bending set of music to the Rocks. The group — which sold out the much smaller venue Globe Hall on a celebrated first stop in Denver less than a year ago — dominated the crowd.
Ogden Theatre with Big Freedia on November 2.)
And, yeah, over time Rateliff has won me over to his soul sound, in part because he has honored the tradition rather than simply claiming it for himself, and because he has not sacrificed a bit of the introspection that made his older music so good. His latest album, Tearing at the Seams, solidified the Night Sweats as more than nostalgic kitsch and as a rock-and-roll force that isn't going anywhere.
At Red Rocks Wednesday night, his bandmates were as enthusiastic as ever, and while I miss what Watkins brought to the act and also Rateliff's older, softer material, the Night Sweats keep getting tighter and more fun the longer they play.
I didn't catch who said it, but one of Rateliff's bandmates told the audience: "I don’t think any of us had any idea that five years ago when we came over to his house to play songs in his attic that we’d be here."
Has it already been five?
A couple years before the Night Sweats were a thing, I remember bumping into Rateliff outside Twist & Shout, the Denver record store that champions local bands like few others. We were both getting off our bikes. We vaguely recognized each other from shows, and said hi. I played it cool, not telling him how much his music had soothed my pain, how I thought he was one of Denver's best, and how I was sure he would blow up.
In some ways, both of those things are unremarkable. But they're also telling. He didn't get to where he is by viewing himself as Denver's biggest thing. He hustled; he was kind.
As he and his band played last night, I thought back to every other time I've seen him dish out his demons for his fans. Even though he was sick, he was grateful to the audience and left all his sweat on the stage. He finished the encore, chucked his guitar to a crew member and sprinted away, hopefully hydrating and getting some rest for his Thursday gig at the Rocks.
After the concert, I overheard a middle-aged man going on about how he had discovered Nathaniel Rateliff six years ago and how moving his music is.
"There’s a lot of music in my life," the guy said. "There’s not a lot of music that gets in my heart. That motherfucker gets in my heart."
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, 8 p.m. Thursday, August 23, Red Rocks Amphitheatre.