Nathaniel Rateliff Reinvents Himself as a Kick-Ass, Original Soul Bandleader
What do you do if your singer-songwriter career stalls out? Reinvent yourself as an oldschool soul bandleader, maybe. Nathaniel Rateliff did it, with the same results as when Phil Niekro switched out the fastball for the knuckler, or when James Brown moved from behind the organ to take over the mic. Rateliff’s show last night, at a private event for media on the Lower East Side with his inspired new band the Night Sweats, was irresistibly fun, an auspicious kickoff to what’s becoming a marathon summer tour (dates are here). The Alabama Shakes are just the tip of the iceberg: as any club booking agent knows, the retro 60s soul craze just refuses to stop, and Rateliff is the latest to catch the wave.
On one hand his songs – vamping two-chord verses rising to even catchier, anthemic choruses – hardly pave any new ground. And a cynic might assail him for recycling riffs that any bar-band musician knows by heart. What makes Rateliff different is that he’s an excellent, distinctive lead guitarist. Playing through a reverb pedal turned up most of the way, his shivery, practically feral solos took the energy to redline every time and elevated the songs above the level of generic. And he doesn’t waste notes, either. The band is excellent, too. Second guitarist Joseph Pope III distinguished himself with his fluency in vintage Memphis licks, and a hard-hitting, chord-chopping solo on the night’s last number. The bassist held down a steady, swinging groove in tandem with drummer Patrick Meese, who pushed the songs with a hard-hitting stadium rock drive. And organist Mark Shusterman harmonized meticulously with the two-man horn section, tenor sax and trumpet blending to deliver a sound a lot more hefty than you would think just three instruments could produce. This wasn’t Muscle Shoals, 1969 – it was state-of-the-art, 2015.
That being said, their style of soul rocks pretty hard and doesn’t go near jazz. They got to halfway through the set before they even hit a minor chord – after all, this is party music. But they do everything possible to keep the audience entertained, opening one number a-cappella with what sounded like five-part harmonies (everybody in the band sings, well), and bedeviled the crowd (and themselves – this is a work in progress) with a series of trick endings. A slow nocturnal groove toward the end hinted at the Stones’ Gimme Shelter, but didn’t go there, instead rising to a more optimistic, animated peak, capped off with a searing Rateliff solo. They finally slowed down for a ballad in 6/8 right before the last song, which turned out to be a licketysplit shuffle possible titled Sonofabitch. If ithat in fact is the title, it will be a hit with every English-speaking six-year-old when it hits youtube, which it inevitably will. Be the first sonofabitch on your block to party to this band and bring your significant other.