Nathaniel Rateliff and the War On Drugs Treat Boulder to a Mid-Summer Classic

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At Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats’ free concert Friday night on The Hill in Boulder, amid the annual Triple-A radio-industry conference and a general welcoming of University of Colorado students, Albums On the Hill owner Andy Schneidkraut argued that calling Rateliff’s incredible, game-changing performance on The Tonight Show two days earlier “like hitting a home run in your first major-league at bat” would be off base.

“No,” Schneidkraut insisted. “It was more like hitting a grand slam in the World Series on the first pitch of your first major-league at bat.”

Dancing across a big outdoor stage on College Avenue before Galactic and The War On Drugs played at the Fox Theatre, Denver's Rateliff looked just as he did during his powerful Tonight Show take on the foot-stomping new single, “S.O.B.”: passionate, poignant and marvelously soulful, like a gruffer Sam Cooke singing redemption songs of love and alcoholism with a revival-style country edge and big, Van Morrison-esque arrangements.

Everyone in the Night Sweats – a tight, uplifting outfit helping make Rateliff’s recent shift to momentous soul and R&B successful – was having a contagious blast onstage. Bassist Joseph Pope rocked back and forth to the rhythm of each song; the two-man horn section clapped and bopped relentlessly; and Rateliff, who plays lead guitar along with excelling as a lead singer somewhere between Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Otis Redding, took every opportunity to bond with his growing audience.

“We’re part of your community,” Rateliff said early in the hour-long set, “and we’re all in this together.”

Chilling outside the Fox before Rateliff’s set, Charlie Hall — drummer for Philadelphia’s dreamily psychedelic indie rockers The War On Drugs — said he hadn’t seen Rateliff’s Tonight Show performance, but Hall marveled when told of fellow Philly great Questlove’s gushing social-media reaction and new Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon’s instant (and vocal) Rateliff fandom.

Not unlike Rateliff, The War On Drugs — whose 2014 guitar-rock soundscape Lost in the Dream became an international sensation —also took about a decade to find a natural niche and deservedly gain some major mainstream spotlight.

Following a set of New Orleans-tinged funk from jamband-scene staple Galactic, The War On Drugs treated an excited Fox crowd to a soaring set of favorites. Led by vastly underrated guitarist Adam Granduciel, whose vocals are not unlike Bob Dylan’s circa Blonde On Blonde, regularly featuring words that seem italicized, The War On Drugs utilized Hall’s thick, deceptively simple near-motorik foundation to repeatedly bring Granduciel’s solos to ecstatic peaks.

Those peaks found the Boulder crowd hooting as if they were watching Trey Anastasio bring a Phish jam to a boil at Red Rocks, but Granduciel — using far less technology than usual because the War On Drugs’ regular equipment was already en route to the band’s upcoming European tour — actually soloed with a creative hard-rock abandon with calculated eruptions much more like Frank Zappa, David Gilmour and even Dean Ween (ala “Exactly Where I’m At”).

Mostly using a Jaguar and a Les Paul, Granduciel (long hair constantly covering his face) repeatedly received loud affection Friday for transforming upbeat, “Boys of Summer”-style ‘80s rock (that a few times sounded so Springsteen-like I expected Demi Moore to leap onstage) from verses and choruses of focused, refined energy into huge, guitar-driven bursts of Rock with a capital R. Each of his roof-raising solos were unique and captivating, usually begun with one of his signature energized hollers into the microphone; the true, song-based rock ‘n’ roll maintaining Granduciel’s energy somehow made the explosive guitar adventures more palpably interesting and riveting than those of most jambands, who ostensibly base their careers on taking solos to such heights.

The War On Drugs also got slow and tastefully trippy at the Fox with tunes like “Suffering,” which slowly devolved into psychedelic hypnosis reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them.” But the highlight of the evening, other than witnessing Nathaniel Rateliff’s humble-yet-triumphant return home from making waves in New York, was watching Charlie Hall meticulously, fluidly provide the building blocks for Granduciel to utter long, East Coast-poetic verses that’d fit right into “Thunder Road” before driving the audience wild with other-worldly guitar freakouts.

While Hall has the upright, blissful technique of Ringo blasting razor-sharp beats on “Paperback Writer,” he also makes the passionate, shape-shifting drummer faces Lars Ulrich made famous in the video for “One.”

The Triple A Conference always brings uniquely vital established national acts to Boulder, where they show hungry upstarts how the mixture of technique, taste and zeal of musicians like Granduciel and Hall — not to mention Colorado’s own Rateliff — can carry a band from obscurity to success.

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