“This isn’t a Night Sweats show,” Nathaniel Rateliff recently told the audience at The Anthem, referring to the group he normally tours and records with.
“Bless you for your ears and hearts,” he said, adding, “It’s taken four years to make this show happen.” Later, he thanked the audience for “letting me be a different character, and allowing me to be vulnerable in a different way.”
In 2020, Rateliff released a rare solo album, And It’s Still Alright. The material was written in response to his going through divorce and the loss of a close friend, Richard Swift, to suicide. At The Anthem on Nov. 3, he explained that Richard died “because he thought nobody loved him,” and he urged those in the audience to reach out to their friends and loved ones if they’re struggling. “I think we’ve all gone through some mental health issues since 2020,” he added.
A native of small-town, rural Missouri, Rateliff grew up in a religious family, and he gravitated to music family at a young age. When he was only 7 years old, he learned to play drums, and he taught himself guitar at 13. After leaving school at 16, he went to to work in a plastics factory.
Rateliff told a little bit of his family history to the audience at The Anthem. “I come from a family of bootleggers,” he said. He had acquired the misconception that his grandfather had frozen to death, but the reality was far more dramatic. He got into a fight with another bootlegger, whose wife shot him. This story inspired the song “You Should Have Seen The Other Guy.”
Watch Nathaniel Rateliff perform “You Should’ve Seen The Other Guy” live with Julie Davis for Rounder Records on YouTube:
After moving to Denver, Rateliff’s career took off, but it didn’t happen quickly. He spent years working odd jobs, building decks, and at a trucking company. With his friend Joseph Pope III, he formed the band Born In The Flood, His first recorded music, with the band the Wheel, which also included Pope, was the album Desire and Dissolving Men. In 2010, he released his solo debut, In Memory of Loss, which was followed by 2013’s Falling Faster Than You Can Run. These early, introspective folk-oriented solo albums earned him critical praise, but he broke out commercially with the more R&B-inflected album he released with the Night Sweats on Stax Records in 2015.
As the intro to this story hinted at, Nathaniel Rateliff has something of a teddy bear quality. He has a gentle affect and bearing, and there’s a sweetness to him that’s undeniable. That comes through in his tender tenor vocals, which are his greatest strength. At the beginning of the show, in a classy move, Nathaniel came out to introduce the opening act, singer-songwriter Kevin Morby.
Rateliff opened his set with three excellent songs from And It’s Still Alright, “Tonight #2,” “All or Nothing,” and “Expecting to Lose.” The set included several more tracks from the album. He described “Kissing Our Friends” as “a very weird love song to my partner that made it sound like we’re in an open relationship.” The set also included the title cut as well as “What A Drag” and “You Need Me,” and he finished his encore with “Mavis,” a tribute to American treasure Mavis Staples.
Watch Nathaniel Rateliff perform “Mavis” live at Red Rocks via YouTube:
Playing without the Night Sweats, Rateliff took the opportunity to revisit some of his earlier solo work. He played “Oil & Lavender” from his debut, and “You Should’ve Seen The Other Guy” is also from that record. He played “I Am” from his sophomore set, and “Shroud” from the 2016 EP of the same title. The set also included “Early Spring,” “This,” “Still Out There Running,” and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “There Is A War” where he was joined by Kevin Morby. He finished the set with “Still Trying” and “Time Stands Still,” and he opened his encore with “Redemption.”
Born and raised in Lubbock, Texas, Kevin Morby stands in the proud tradition of great musicians from that city: Buddy Holly, Terry Allen, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock, just to shoot a few names off the top of my head. In the mid-2000s, Morby moved to Brooklyn, where he joined the band Woods on bass and eventually formed The Babies with Cassie Ramone. In 2013, he kicked off his solo career with the 8-song set Harlem River. After moving to Los Angeles, he put out his sophomore album, Still Life, the following year. He’s since released 8 more albums, with last year’s This Is A Photograph being particularly beloved by critics.
Both Rateliff and Morby are sometimes grouped into Americana, but there are real differences in their sound. While Rateliff’s approach comes from folk and soul, Morby’s comes from louder indie rock influences. He lit it up on the electric guitar during his set, with opened with the title cut of Sundowner, followed by “Valley,” “Campfire,” and “Wander.” He talked about what a great day he’d had in the city, and dedicated “City Music” to the District. The next couple of songs, “This Is A Photograph” and “Five Easy Pieces,” came from last year’s album. He rounded out the set with “Destroyer” and “Rock Bottom,” finishing with “Beautiful Strangers,” with Nathaniel joining on vocals.
I saw Rateliff with the Night Sweats on Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Tour a few years ago, and this show was very different. The Night Sweats material was conspicuous by its absence from the set, but the material he included was just as compelling, and Kevin Morby was a great addition to the night.
Here are some photos of Kevin Morby opening Nathaniel Rateliff at The Anthem on Nov. 3, 2023. All pictures shot on 35 mm film and copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.
Here are some photos of Nathaniel Rateliff headlining The Anthem on Nov. 3, 2023. All pictures on 35mm film and copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.