Concert Reviews

Nathaniel Rateliff Keeps It Humble. Denver Should, Too.

"I'm Nathaniel Rateliff."
"I'm Nathaniel Rateliff." Miles Chrisinger
Nathaniel Rateliff has been doing Denver proud on stage and screen. No doubt, this has been Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats' year — maybe decade.

We’ve written about Rateliff's singles, his music videos, his shows at the Apollo and the Grand Ole Opry, his covers of “Santa, Baby” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” his gun-violence-prevention work and his Red Rocks concert, where Rateliff had thousands of people dancing when he was hardly healthy enough to stand.

Now, before the year ends, one last story.

Since we've written so much about Rateliff, I decided to go to his December 19 show, the first of two Night Sweats holiday dates at the Ogden Theatre, and just enjoy the music without taking notes, without thinking what I might write about it.

Before the show, I stopped by Denver Open Media, where a few dozen artists and media producers had gathered to mourn the pioneering nonprofit being stripped by the city of the public access channels that it had run for the past twelve years, all in the name of “modernity.” There I watched Flobots perform two songs. Those indie rappers have never stopped showing up for this city: before they were famous, when they were on radio stations across the country singing about riding a bike with no handlebars, and even today, as they keep churning out new pieces.

I saw other singer-songwriters take the stage, including Irie Still, who summoned Bob Marley, playing a hand
drum. I saw performers who'd help build Denver’s art, media and music scene, all furious that city officials were taking away yet another institution built by the scrappy people who’ve made this dusty place home.

The crew from Wheelchair Sports Camp had just shown up when I realized that if I was going to make it to Rateliff, I had to go fast, so I sadly missed that supergroup, whose members' humility belies their talent.

As I headed to the Ogden, I thought about how when I moved here in 2005, Denver’s cultural scene had a Wild West freedom that made it attractive (not to mention affordable) to set up shop and do it ourselves. Now the City and County of Denver seems to involve itself in everything — the DIY culture, live-work spaces, even street art. Officials keep bragging about how great this place is, even as old-timers and artists have been pushed to the suburbs — or out of state.

I walked into the crowded Ogden late. It took a few minutes to find a spot where the sound wasn't rotten and my head wasn’t blocking someone who’d shown up on time.

Not long after, Rateliff started introducing his bandmates. Then he did what he always seems to do at shows. He introduced himself: “I’m Nathaniel Rateliff.”

Every sweaty middle-ager swooning in that crowd, happy to have a babysitter for the night, in love with Rateliff’s dad bod and his puppy-dog sad-sweet eyes and the way he tosses and catches guitars like they’re baseballs that he seems incapable of dropping — all these people know who Rateliff is. He’s the most popular artist to come out of Denver in years other than maybe The Lumineers, The Fray or, for a brief stint, Flobots.

Rateliff has worked his buns off to get where he is (just look at those swiveling hips). He gives back to the community through the Marigold Project. He stands up for what he believes in. He's pulled himself up through a hardscrabble life to a David Fricke profile in Rolling Stone. Despite everything, it hasn't dawned on him that he doesn’t have to keep telling us his name.

Will he ever stop introducing himself? Probably not. The small-town Missouri boy who moved to Denver a couple of decades ago is like most other stars in this town worth their fame: humble.

All the glitz and high-rises, all the doggy-daycare-cupcake-shop-sneaker-store-ax-throwing lounges, all the orgy of growth that is this new Denver — all that nonsense can’t beat down what’s good in this city: the humility and can-do spirit that Rateliff embodies.

That's what Open Media Foundation has always been about. That's why Wheelchair Sports Camp has always shown up, along with Flobots and the Lumineers and the no-name musicians, too. And that's what inspired all those people in the Ogden Theatre to belt out every note that Rateliff sang.

That humble grit is one of the things people love about this place. It's why artists used to come here in droves, seeking creative freedom and a break from the careerist slog of more renowned arts and music scenes.

Maybe the people running this city could adopt Rateliff’s move. Keep it humble, simply say, “I’m Denver”...and then prove it by putting on a hell of a show. 
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris