Perhaps it’s the delivery, all horn blasts and handclaps and a humming intro, or maybe it’s the way songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff stands at the stage’s edge and howls a lamentation of both misery and ecstasy.
Either way, the performance of “S.O.B.” on the Aug. 5, 2015, of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” was a watershed moment for Rateliff and his band, the Night Sweats, which pull into The Mill and Mine in Knoxville for a sold-out show on Wednesday. The audience gave the band a standing ovation, and Fallon lavished praise on the band, which released its debut album a couple of weeks later; it would crack the Top 20 of the Billboard 200 albums chart and establish Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats as one of the foremost purveyors of blue-eyed soul rock on the circuit today.
All it took, Rateliff noted ironically in a recent interview with The Daily Times, was a song about his battles with alcohol.
“It’s such a surprise to me that we’ve had the attention we’ve had to this point,” Rateliff said. “I think for a long time, the only thing I tried to do was be honest with myself and not get in the way of the songs and just let the songs happen. If I would have known writing a song about being a (screw)-up and a drunk was going to get attention, I would have written more of them.”
As a solo artist, Rateliff earned a reputation as a soulful folkie in the Denver scene; he parlayed that into some national acclaim — Mojo magazine gave his Rounder Records debut, “In Memory of Loss,” four stars — and opened for acts like The Lumineers and Dr. Dog before putting together the Night Sweats. “S.O.B.,” he said, developed out of the band’s early days, when he and the guys were trying to fill a lengthy set.
“We didn’t have enough material, and I thought, ‘I’ll sing this part, and then we’ll get the audience to sing it with us,’ and I guess that ended up working,” he said. “As far as the writing about those things that you can be vulnerable about, I’m fine with it. If I have to be the person that’s broken or torn up about something in order to have to write about it, I’m willing to be that vessel, I guess. I’m willing to be the one that makes the sacrifice if it helps someone else down the road.”
There’s an undeniable groove to the music made by the Night Sweats, a funky, swampy, psychedelic vibe that sounds like what might have resulted had the Allman Brothers Band rose up out of New Orleans instead of Georgia. Horns, piano, guitars, percussion and Rateliff’s preacher-man range from a reverential hush to hellfire-and-brimstone exaltations make “Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats” one of the most fun albums of the past couple of years, and the concerts even more so. Still, Rateliff said, he often gets feedback from fans who tell him that his songs, particularly “S.O.B.,” have helped them.
“It’s a nice thing to hear, but I certainly don’t write songs with the approach of that sort of arrogance, thinking what I’m writing is going to change people’s lives,” he said. “I’m just writing songs that affect me, and hopefully in affecting myself and having conversations with myself and getting them out into the open air, that honesty, search and discovery comes across with humility and not arrogance and connects with other people.”
He and the band recently wrapped up a writing trip in which they came up with 11 new songs, he added, many of them influenced by the aesthetic of bands he’s been listening to of late — singer-songwriter Kevin Morby and the band Big Thief, among others. The band is going back to New Orleans soon to cut some songs with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and more than anything else, Rateliff is just trying to get out of the way — of success, of his muse, of all the old demons that held him back for so many years. More than anything else, he’s trying to get out of the way of fear and trust in the gift that’s brought him this far.
“The Night Sweats is a big group of people, and the other people who travel with us and are part of their crew, they’re a part of my family, so there’s pressure and fear of how we’re going to sustain that financially,” he said. “I’m afraid of having to try to write and it not working. But when I started to write recently, I just let the songs be themselves and tried not to get in the way. I just try not to think that I’m clever enough, and I try to just not outwit myself. It’s been hard to get my head into the right place to understand where I’m at these days, and it’s definitely emotional and overwhelming at times — but it’s also kind of a blessing and such a surprise. I kind of keep trying to approach it by being humble about it and being gentle with whatever is happening in our lives.”