Words: Alex Wood
Never was the powerful mass appeal of recent Nathaniel Rateliff single “S.O.B.” more apparent than his Chicago Theatre performance on Wednesday evening.
Hosted as the annual WXRT Big Holiday Concert, Rateliff and his band, The Nightsweats, were joined by soul legend Mavis Staples for what turned out to be a perfect blend of positive energy and R&B inspired rock ‘n roll.
Staples opened the show, singing over guitarist Rick Holmstrom’s reverbed blues guitar. The recent recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, Staples’ set felt especially timely in today’s political climate.
Between songs, she told stories of performing before Martin Luther King Jr. gave speeches, meeting the Obamas, her tiring year of touring and her love of returning home to Chicago.
Her performances were packed with genuine soul, any inability to sing in upper ranges made up for by her low growl and flawless melodic sense. After five songs, the duo left stage to a standing ovation, with Rateliff up next.
With only one, self-titled record released to date, Nathaniel Rateliff and The Nightsweats had big shoes to fill headlining the sold-out concert at the 3,600 capacity theater.
Fortunately, the band was more than up to the challenge.
The Nightsweats’ six members took stage without their singer, the audience cheering as they eased into a blues jam, a slow drum beat followed by organ before the remainder of the band entered, the bright horn section leading the instrumental’s crescendo.
Rateliff appeared on stage to massive applause, cheerfully acknowledging the crowd before taking to the microphone for “I’ve Been Failing.”
The audience stood up, took photos, cheered, leaned toward one another to excitedly speak.
Looking around, the scene begged a simple question: With the band having existed for less than two years, how did Rateliff become such a larger-than-life star? How does this 38-year-old white man from Denver, tattooed and bearded, become a leading figure in the neo-soul scene, of all things?
In the end, there are two answers: the meticulous craftsmanship of his songwriting, and “S.O.B.”
But we’ll start with the songwriting.
“I’ve Been Failing” was simply massive, from the instrumental opening to the gigantic, stacked guitar sound to the sing-along chorus to its climactic build. The sound filled the large theater perfectly. But above all else was Rateliff’s voice. Able to jump from a soulful whisper to an absolute howl without a second’s notice, it’s the kind of voice that nobody is simply born with, and the average person couldn’t learn in a lifetime. It’s gripping and enticing, and leads each song to its highest points.
Meanwhile, the band dances endlessly, everybody but the drummer moving and swaying with each song, the horn section and keyboardist picking up auxiliary percussion instruments when not playing.
Though this could seem like a gimmick, it feels genuine, as though performing or hearing these songs gives you no option but to dance.
And while this is certainly the best reason for the band’s rapid rise to fame, a large portion of the audience remained still. Perhaps it was the seated venue, or perhaps, as I would argue, it was the “S.O.B.” effect.
But, again, we’ll get to that later.
Second single “Need Never Get Old” had the audience clapping along, its upbeat tempo and bright sound practically creating a party on the spot.
“Howl At Nothing” emphasized the group’s knack for harmonies, all atop a mellow, skuzzy blues tone. Again meticulously created for the live setting, the song featured an effective fake ending, a short pause followed by the band’s reentry.
An inarguable highlight for the evening came when Mavis Staples joined Rateliff on stage for a rendition of The Band’s classic “The Weight.” She traded verses with Rateliff as the Nightsweats transformed the original to a far larger sound, Staples radiating joy throughout.
Newer song “I Did It” followed, flaunting a thumping R&B bass line, simple but effective, with a clear Southern influence on the call and response vocals. At its height, the track reached ZZ Top levels of guitar rock.
Still, for many of the songs, the audience seemed too tranquil for the boisterous performance happening in front of them. Though songs like “Thank You” earned immediate applause, older track “Boil & Fight” felt almost unwanted, despite its reconstruction for the full band and excellent performance.
It was as though the inevitable performance of “S.O.B.” was looming on the horizon like a bomb about to drop.
The Nightsweats left the stage for Rateliff to perform two songs alone and acoustic.
“It’s been a hard year,” the singer said, referencing the deaths of Leonard Cohen, Bowie, Prince and Leon Russell. “Sometimes it feels like the magic is leaving our world.”
He proceeded to speak of the need to “continue on without ignorance and hate” after the recent presidential election, emphasizing that we’re “all in this ship together.”
A moving cover of Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2” followed, delicate, soft finger-picking accompanying Rateliff’s carefully controlled vocals. The singer then performed “I’d Be Waiting” in an equally stripped-down fashion.
The band returned for the remainder of the show, keeping a steady, high energy throughout.
“Shake” featured a surf-meets-psychedelic guitar introduction, its darkness matched by the electric piano, all leading to its smooth, mellow choruses and laid-back groove. The song built toward a guitar solo from Rateliff, with the full band soon trading solos to create one of the night’s biggest jams.
“Out On The Weekend” had the dazzling energy of a late-night TV band, while “Trying So Hard Not To Know” was a quick blast of energy, more rock than soul.
As Rateliff introduced each band member over a slow organ drone, it became clear the time had come. The band took to their microphones as Rateliff stood without a guitar, each member humming the introductory melody to “S.O.B.”
And the crowd went nuts.
In fairness, the song is near perfect, one of those singles that comes around every five years, at best. From it’s infectious, wordless vocal melody to it’s clap and stomp beat to it’s climactic, full-band chorus, it plays like a celebration, its power only emphasized further in the live setting.
The audience clapped along, miserably off beat, and sang and danced with enthusiasm, the way they should have throughout the entire show. The band added an instrumental breakdown in the middle, offering the horns a chance to solo, and ended with a sing-along of its catchy, hummed melody. Rateliff thanked the crowd to roaring applause, and the song was over.
The houselights remained dimmed after the band left the stage, and the audience kept cheering. Scattered groups left their seats, but most remained faithful, practically drunk off the ecstasy that “S.O.B.” provided.
The moment had come, and nobody was disappointed, but everybody wanted more.
The applause didn’t fade, and soon the balcony overhead began singing the single’s wordless melody, quickly spreading through the venue like a wildfire.
In less than a minute the band emerged, every member moving toward his respective instrument while joining the audience in enthusiastically singing the timeless melody. Rateliff counted the band back in and “S.O.B.” continued.
The moment was magical, the musicians and audience both seeming to acknowledge the power of the song and rejoice in its greatness together.
After a single chorus, the band abruptly broke into The Band’s “The Shape I’m In,” again fleshing the folk-rock original into a massive, R&B inspired jam, only to return to “S.O.B.” as an outro to unanimous applause.
“What I Need” ended the set with a slower but powerful soul sound, an explosive blast of rock serving as a finale and a fitting conclusion for the 20-song set.
As the audience filed out of the venue, fans continued to sing “S.O.B.” in the hallways and aisles, and questions still lingered in my mind: Where do The Nightsweats go next? How could a band ever top a single as powerful as that? And were the audience here to see the band, or see the song?
Though time will inevitably answer these questions, the fact remains that Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats are far from a one-hit-wonder. The band’s live show is exceptional, living up to the legacy of Stax Records’ older bands with a powerful and perfectly executed performance, and their first record boasts more quality soul songs than practically any other peer in the modern music scene.
Rateliff and his band have earned their fame, and hopefully their expanding audience is willing to grow with them along the way.
Read the setlists from the show below.
Mavis Staples setlist:
1. For What It’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield cover)
2. Do It Again (Staple Sisters)
3. Why Am I Treated So Bad (Staple Sisters)
4. Ain’t Going To Let Nobody Turn Me Around
5. I’ll Take You There (Staples Sisters)
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats setlist:
1. Instrumental > I’ve Been Failing
2. I Need Never Get Old
3. Look It Here
4. Howling At Nothing
5. The Weight (with Mavis Staples - The Band cover)
6. I Did It
7. Mellow Out
8. Thank You
9. Boil & Fight (originally Nathaniel Rateliff song)
10. Wasting Time
11. Chelsea Hotel #2 (performed solo - Leonard Cohen cover)
12. I’d Be Waiting (All Day Just To Dance With You) (performed solo)
16. Out On The Weekend
17. Trying So Hard Not To Know
19. S.O.B. > The Shape I’m In (The Band cover) > S.O.B.
20. What I Need