Spotlight is shining on Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats

Denver s Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats will release their debut album on Aug. 21. Rateliff is third from the left. (John Leyba / The Denver Post)
Denver s Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats will release their debut album on Aug. 21. Rateliff is third from the left. (John Leyba / The Denver Post)

By Matt Miller

NEW YORK — Nathaniel Rateliff stands at the center of a small crowd at a bar in the East Village.

He’s staring at the only TV, tucked into the corner, and he’s hoping he didn’t screw up; he’s hoping none of his bandmates screwed up.

The bar is called the hi-fi, and roughly 1,600 miles away, a Baker Neighborhood crowd is also glued to a TV in Denver’s hi-dive.

From halfway across a continent, they’re collectively watching “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”. Millions of people watch the show each weekday. But this group (along with a group at Illegal Pete’s in Denver and likely other groups across the country) are watching a special episode this night.

Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats are making their network TV debut to promote their first album, which comes out Aug. 21.

Rateliff and his six-piece band take up most of the hi-fi bar area. But there are also industry people, friends in town, other musicians and just people wandering in off the street (some of whom seem to recognize Rateliff) filling up the bar.

“I booped Fallon,” is the first thing Wesley Watkins (trumpet) says as the band files into the bar. By “booped” Watkins means he did the gag where he made Fallon look down at his tie thinking there was something on it.

Bassist Joseph Pope is laughing about his run-in with fellow Fallon guest, Ice Cube, who after the show told him, “I got a kick out of that.”

As “The Tonight Show” opening credits roll, no one in the bar bothers to put on the audio. The music keeps playing and the TV has captions scrolling across the bottom. The Fallon announcer shares who the musical guest is.

Cheers from the bar.

Rateliff and his band will have to wait until the end of the show to see how they do in a potentially career-defining performance.

“It is what it is,” Rateliff says, his attention still directed toward Fallon interviewing Mamie Gummer, as the show continues toward its closing musical performance.

And that’s Rateliff for you, an artist who has flirted with success locally, nationally and internationally with his own solo career and various bands. He’s been signed to labels, dropped from labels, praised by critics, beaten up by critics, muscled around by executives and toured the world. He knows the industry and how to face successes with the failures.

Shortly after finishing his solo album, “Falling Faster Than You Can Run,” in 2012, Rateliff was dropped from his label Rounder Records. Feeling discouraged, he began experimenting with a new sound, a different sound more along the lines of soul and R&B. And the moody singer-songwriter was reborn a soulman.

“I feel like soul and R&B and rock ‘n roll and Americana, it’s a multicultural style of music and it came from America being a melting pot in the world,” Rateliff says. “That’s where folk music came from. Soul and R&B were really powerful to push through a lot of change in the U.S.”

In the years since Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats played its first shows in 2013, the band has gathered major traction.

It’s all led to this performance on Fallon, which is just about to start after the final commercial break. The bar kills the house music and turns up the TV audio.

“A party is going to break out right now,” Fallon says introducing the band. “Turn your TVs up, turn your computers up, whatever you’re watching this on.”

And he’s right.

The bar is dancing. “The Tonight Show” audience is dancing. Rateliff is dancing.

The performance is a hit, and overnight Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats top Taylor Swift as a trending artist on iTunes.

NPR called it “the arrival of a force of nature.”

“I don’t know what it is about it that brings people together. There’s something about music that makes you want to dance and also hurts your heart a little bit,” Rateliff says a few days later after seeing the response from audiences across the country.

This performance and its reception is the perfect boost for the band as it preps to release its self-titled debut album on Aug. 21. Recorded over three weeks at Richard Swift’s (The Shins, The Black Keys) studio in a small town south of Eugene, Ore., the album captures the uninhibited and natural, big band joy of American soul.

During recording, Rateliff would go on bike rides around the studio to think: speed this up, change this key, slow this down. Then he’d go into the studio with ideas, where Swift would keep the sound in check.

“Sometimes he would just be, ‘nope no dad rock in here,'” Rateliff says. “If your ego flairs up that’s a pretty nice way to deflate it.”

And this record has the honor of being released on the recently-revived Stax, the home of legendary R&B artists like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes.

“I want it to be our own thing, but it’s derivative of this scene that was happening a long time ago,” Rateliff says of the album’s home on Stax. “If we could be part of that I think it could add strength to what we’re doing and get a younger generation interested in that era of musicians.”

On the heels of this release, the Night Sweats will kick off a headlining North American tour, joined by Caroline Rose and Denver’s own Land Lines.

It’s still not clear if Rateliff will focus on just Night Sweats or his solo material or split his time between both. He considers himself a songwriter mdash; no matter the genre or label — and this current project gives him the space for different sounds, he says.

“I’d still prefer to be a songwriter and not a blue eyed soul singer or even an Americana and folk singer,” Rateliff says. “With art and with thinking through things, not everything is definable it just is what it is.” is The Denver Post’s music blog.

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