Hot in the City: An Interview with Nathaniel Rateliff

Currently riding a crest of a wave following the phenomenal success of their self-titled 2015 album, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats recently played a very special St. Patrick’s weekend gig at the Jameson Distillery Bow St. for a lucky group of fans. Colm O’Hare reports on the evening and also talks to the band’s frontman about their meteoric rise...

It’s mid-March in Dublin, and the late afternoon sun is shining brightly on the cobbled streets around Smithfield Square. The town is already racing towards full St. Patrick’s party mode. Among the smattering of lurid green Darby O’Gill hats and Leprechaun beards outside, Nathaniel Rateliff cuts a striking figure, as he strolls in casually through the doors of Jameson’s historic Bow Street Distillery, with bandmates the Night Sweats in tow. Looking like a cross between an early 20th century Californian gold prospector and an Amish elder, the Missouri-born, Colorado-based, one-time missionary preacher and now musical powerhouse, is in high spirits.

He’s in town for a couple of live appearances, including an intimate Bow St. Sessions slot in The Academy on Paddy’s Day eve and today’s even more intimate show at the Distillery. The two hottest tickets in town on this feisty national holiday, those lucky enough to have a pass for this evening’s event are already gathering outside the door. Quite frankly, there could hardly be a greater air of expectation.

“Wow, this such a great room,” Rateliff enthuses, casting his gaze around the newly refurbished and extended facility, which is all aged oakwood beams, rough-cut stone and shiny countertops. “Nice and intimate but big enough for a party. It’s going to be something special tonight.”

He certainly lived up to his promise and then some, with Hot Press’ Peter McNally enthusing in his review, “It’s a rare privilege to see a band who are capable of reducing audiences numbering in their thousands to stomping, clapping, hands-in-the-air hoedowns, strip it down and lay it bare for a night in such an intimate setting. The band is skilfully filled out with trumpet, saxophone, Hammond organ, drums, bass and lap-steel, and they combine into a deep rich sound. It’s warmed further by the natural reverb of the room and, as the lap-steel takes off on ‘Wasting Time’, the notes seem to float around above us hauntingly.”

But before all that, we adjourn to an adjoining tasting room for a quick chat, in which Rateliff speaks of Ireland in glowing terms. “We’ve always loved coming here and to Dublin in particular,” he says. ”So when the offer came in to play this show, we jumped at the chance and flew from the other side of the world – literally.”

He tells the truth. Leaving their home base of Denver several weeks ago, these latter-day pilgrims flew to LA, then onto Sydney for a tour of the east coast of Australia. From there, they hopped up over to Perth for a jaunt up the west coast of Australia, before finally heading on to Ireland.

“It seems like crazy scheduling,” says Nathaniel, “but that tour was all set up before we got the offer to play in Dublin. So it didn’t make sense to go back through the US. Instead, we flew to Dubai, then onto Lisbon where we stayed for a few days’ r ‘n’ r, and we eventually got here yesterday. It’s been great, the weather is incredible and it’s the end of this tour, so everyone is up for a final blow-out. It’s remarkable for us to leave Denver heading west and to return from the east. We’re trying to get our heads around that one!”

Rateliff remembers in impressive detail all of his Dublin shows to date. “When I started doing the singer-songwriter thing it was the Academy 2 down in that basement in front of a few people,” he recalls. “Then with the band we did the Workman’s which was great. Last year it was two nights at the Olympia, which was very special, and now this. I’ll play for just two people or thousands. It’s not about numbers with us, and even if there’s not that many people, we try to deliver a great show.”

Rateliff & the Night Sweats’ reputation as incendiary live performers in the tradition of the old soul and R&B masters is well-deserved. Indeed, it has made crowds flock to their shows in increasingly huge numbers – and their Irish fanbase is only set to grow, with the band playing three high-profile supports slots with Kings Of Leon at 3Arena this summer. Their self-titled debut album, released in the middle of 2015, came steeped in classic Americana, with breakout single ‘S.O.B.’ an unlikely blend of old school revivalist preaching and Sam Cooke-style soul stomping. But they’re no one-trick ponies and there’s plenty more where that came from, including live favourites such as the Stax-like ‘I Need Never Get Old’ and the bluesy ‘Howling At Nothing’. It’s all timeless, life-affirming stuff.

The story of Rateliff’s strict religious upbringing and brief career as a preacher have been oft cited as creative inspirations. Where do they see themselves in the context of current American music?

“Well,” ponders the singer, “I like the term ‘Americana’ when it’s being applied to us, because that’s what we are. Regardless of what the immigration policy is right now, I think what made America great was people coming from different parts of the world. You had different cultures colluding and creating all sorts of music. Bluegrass and blues and rock and roll all came out of that, and then you have the French influence in New Orleans, which is its own thing. In fact, we had the pleasure of playing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and all I can say is, ‘Oh my goodness.’”

Surprisingly, Rateliff points to a more recent Irish influence in their music. “I’ve been listening to the Dubliners a lot lately,” he notes, “and we’re doing a version of ‘Whiskey In The Jar’. I know it’s a Thin Lizzy song, but they’ve copyrighted parts of it, so we can’t do the (mimes Eric Bell’s familiar guitar part) bit. Metallica did it too, but we worked up our own interpretation and we like it.”

Is performing live onstage where the band are most comfortable?

“Yeah but we like making records too,” reasons Rateliff. “We’ve been touring pretty much non-stop for about two years now, so we’ve had to learn to write on the road. It’s been hectic but ‘S.O.B.’ put us on the map and hopefully it’ll make it easy for us to put out other songs. We released an EP late last year and we’re doing a couple of songs from that today. Then when we go home we’re rehearsing for a few days – we’ve rented a house where we’ve set up a studio and we’ll do all the woodshedding there.”

Presumably they get to see and hear other acts on their travels? “Oh yeah,” nods Nathaniel. “I saw Angel Olsen in Denver and she was fantastic, great new album too. And I’ve been listening to the Laura Marling album and it’s breaking my heart in exactly the right way.”


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