This past weekend, Denver breakout boys Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats played a two-night holiday homecoming stand at the Ogden Theatre. Here's the narrative I've heard every day since I moved to Denver: After years of teeth-sharpening in stalwart bands, releasing solid albums and wearing deep grooves into local stages, Rateliff filled out his earlier folk sound with the Night Sweats lineup and finally made it big(ger) on the national and international scenes. The members of the new act put out a record with Stax this summer; their single “S.O.B.” was ranked Number 19 on Rolling Stone's list of best songs of the year. This weekend marked the celebratory return, a tradition that highlighted how far they've come. Who knows how big they will be by the time they play Red Rocks next summer? If there was ever a time to see the band, it's now. Besides, I've been advised—I've lived in Denver for more than a month now, so it's about goddamn time I got a little Night Sweat on me.
Saturday night began with solid sets from the bewitching, cello-driven Land Lines from Denver, and Caroline Rose, a fuzzy rock act which boasted the night's most eye-catching merch: T-shirts emblazoned with the logo “FUCK FEAR.” The sold-out crowd was boisterous, woozy, ready to dance. Many conversations centered around whether and when show-goers had seen the Night Sweats before. Everyone assured me I was in for a body-shaking, soul-quaking treat.
I didn't doubt it. But here was my question: What's the big deal? I've been a fan of Rateliff's material before this incarnation, compelled by the songs constructed around fingerpicked guitars and his truly extraordinary voice. The longing and storytelling of songs like “Still Trying” were powerful, even if they did blend in a bit with the rest of the foot-stomping folk that's been popular the last several years. So now that Rateliff's sound has shifted into a fuller, even more foot-stomping retro-soul, the act is breaking big. But why, and why now?
Is this blasphemy? Before you run me out of town in the Hyundai I rode in on, hear me out: Retro-soul is, by definition, not new. It's not as though listeners have been starved for that Stax sound, for a blue-eyed second coming of Otis Redding. You can get your fix with St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Alabama Shakes, Leon Bridges—just to name a few of today's popular acts anointed at the Tiny Desk altar. I waited to see what set the Night Sweats apart.
The Night Sweats took the stage and got down to it, extending the opening riff of "I Need Never Get Old" and providing a triumphant groove for Rateliff to eventually emerge and grab his guitar. What's obvious from the jump is that the band is tight as hell and its members—Patrick Meese (drums), Luke Mossman (guitar), Joseph Pope III (bass), Mark Shusterman (keys), Wesley Watkins (trumpet), Andy Wild (saxophone)—are fantastic players. The dancing horn section, in particular Watkins, seem to get the most attention, but the whole band performs with good-natured vigor.
Rateliff is a charismatic and gracious performer, offering frequent heartfelt thanks—"We fucking love you. We're just trying to make something good from here"—to the hometown crowd. He even stumped for Bernie Sanders between slugs of whiskey. Yet he seems a reluctant soul-man—always with a guitar or tambourine in his hand rather than vamping with the mike stand a la James Brown. If I closed my eyes, Rateliff's voice rumbled in the vein of the all-time great soul singers—Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett—even if his music lacks the indelibility that time passing may lend to these songs. As quickly and forcefully as “S.O.B.” sticks in a listener's head, the rest of the current catalog doesn't, at least not in the way of a classic like Cooke's “Having a Party,” which the band covered as the final encore. (Fun fact: “Bring It on Home to Me” was the B-side of that record in 1962. The B-side!) So what is happening in this moment with the Night Sweats? Is Rateliff's personal narrative of hell and high-water the thing that moves? Is it his exceptional soft-shoe?
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Or is it that, even if just for now, this band still belongs to Denver?
Who knows how big this excellent band will be by the time they play Red Rocks next summer? Or who knows how big they may not be? Earlier on Saturday night, I attended KTCL 93.3's annual Hometown for the Holidays showcase of local bands. Of 150 bands that submitted songs to this year's competition, the contestants were whittled by scenester committee and listener votes to three contenders that competed for prize money, studio time and the honor of headlining...the same showcase next year. Bands campaigned, brought their friends to the show, did all the hustle required of lesser-known bands trying to break through. The 2015 winner is the band 888, which includes members of defunct metalcore outfit Drop Dead, Gorgeous, which enjoyed national success. Former members of that band retooled the sound for 888's slick, emo-leaning alt-pop. Who knows what sonic incarnation will resonate widely and when? Even for a band topping the best local stages, isn't there a tangible fear that "on the cusp" may be as big as it gets?
I went back to the Ogden on Sunday night to listen hard for what I may have missed. (And to dance, definitely to dance.) On the second night, Rateliff admitted to being tired, though the crowd may have been even more raucous. The band stuck to the set list, which stuck to the Night Sweats' material, and even ended with "Having a Party" again. But here's the magic: The band ends the regular set with "S.O.B.," and cut it off cold after a reasonable number of choruses, exiting the stage. The crowd, however, worked into a zealous clapping frenzy, doesn't chant Rateliff's name or "one more song"; they just keep clapping in time, keep singing the outro melody's whoa-oh-oh's until you could almost forget that we're waiting for anything else to happen, for a singer to return. Rateliff and the band do return, segueing into The Band's "The Shape I'm In" before swerving back into "S.O.B." There's that Denver crowd throughout, throwing up their hands, whooping, praising, filling in the gaps.That's the lesson from a show like this: There's only so much that's in the artists' hands. It's up to the listeners, the folks who grab hold of the music and make it mean something in their lives, who dance all night, who don't quite know why this music at this moment or whether it will stand the test of time, but whose verve fills in whatever cracks there may be.