“As you can likely tell” Nathaniel Rateliff said in between songs “These are quite a bit different from the songs by The Night Sweats.’’ A quiet, seated crowd seemed to agree with tepid laughter.
The last time most of us had seen Nathaniel Rateliff was during his tenure as a frontman of The Night Sweats, who had performed at Surly Brewing about six months before. The last time I had seen them was when they performed in the blazing heat of a summer sun during Hinterland in Iowa. Nathaniel, then, was more of an entertainer. His band took the stage first to intro a song, and introduced him as he walked on stage to grand applause. He seemed to venture around the stage more during songs, and on the last few bars of some tunes, wildly threw his guitar across stage to be caught by a prepared and talented roadie.He performed what may have been the greatest feat that weekend, in finally being able to get a vast majority of concertgoers to stand up from their air couches and picnic blankets – and dance. Tonight in the colder, darker State Theater however, there was no dancing. With the exception of a small group of people in the front row who stood during a Night Sweats song How to Make Friends midway through the set, the rest of the crowd in the State Theater remained seated. The adventurous showman we knew from the Night Sweats who blared into a harmonica wearing a flat brimmed hat and got us up and dancing had now donned a buttoned coat, combed back his hair, and played an acoustic guitar to sing to a quiet, seated crowd. Even still, He bared his soul to us without performing the soul music we’ve previously heard from him.
To Nathaniel, that isn’t a bad thing. He told the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week that, if anything, that’s his plan. “We’re playing places like [the State] in most cities, if only to make it a clearer distinction between this and the Night Sweats,” He said. While the crowd seemed to be expecting to hear older material, the setlist mostly contained songs from Nathaniel’s latest record And It’s Still Alright Released back in February. It is a deeply personal record that Nathaniel said took longer than expected. He admitted onstage “I had the idea that I was going to write and record this record in about eight days” He said. “I went a little overboard, and it took from March to October instead.” While these shows are marked as a solo tour, Nathaniel went on to say that he also planned for it to be small. One tour bus and one equipment trailer. Instead, he has 21 people on tour, and 10 musicians onstage, including a dual drummer setup ala Grateful Dead, and a quartet of stringed instruments in the back of the stage that added depth to nearly every song of the night, Including the ambient set opener Tonight #2.
The album is a slower, more revealing record about the rougher experiences Nathaniel has gone through in the last few years, dealing with a difficult divorce and the loss of his good friend and producer Richard Swift. The album is not the worn out tale of a popular artist stepping back from making the similar hit songs we know to reinvent himself with more earthier, folk music. Rather, it’s a confessional record about just how hard loss can be to someone. It’s a good, albeit heavy subject for a record, Even if it means the songs are not upbeat.
Expecting to Lose was a welcome, bouncy, bluesy tune toward the beginning of the set. While there still seemed to be untapped energy within the crowd expecting to dance, The energy of the crowd changed throughout the show to more of a meditative performance. With it being the first night of the tour, audiences were not yet aware of what to fully expect from an artist whose goal was to differentiate themselves from their past work. But while we were not on our feet, we were still connected. Couples who sat next to each other put each others heads on their shoulders. Phones remained mostly put away, sans a few out from time to time to take images of the beautiful stage design. There was little to no chatter, and applause after each song was still plentiful. While it wasn’t a rambunctious set, people still gave the band their undivided attention. As an artist, there isn’t much more you can ask for from an audience that is able to like what they’re hearing, and pay attention to hearing it. This sold out crowd got it. Especially during the showstopper and arguably album highlight Time Stands.
And It’s Still Alright is still a brand new record. It’s songs are not old enough yet to be placed on breakup or “Folky Sunday” Spotify playlists where we’re able to associate people or places to them. But Nathaniel’s voice and sound are familiar enough to us where we can begin to put in those visuals to these songs, even if they’re still new. While most of us know him as a soul singer, there were still hints of his roots as a barebones folk artist that die-hard fans know him from Austin to Boston and older solo records. While his greatest feat at Hinterland a few years back was getting a sunburnt, tired crowd up out of their air couches, his greatest feat tonight was connecting us as an audience to discover the grief and pain that lies within these new songs, and having us understand those same feelings he has. He reached out to us in song to explain the pain he’s gone through in loss. And we felt it.
He left us with a message before his encore song Rush On dedicated to Richard Swift. “Please, be vulnerable with the ones you love” he said quietly, hiding a slight crack in his voice. Perhaps it was a hard lesson he himself had learned, or a piece of advice he just wanted to share. But it’s a beautiful parting message from him to his audience, and shows that during his set, he had learned to be vulnerable with us.