It feels wonderfully apt – almost poetic – that Nathaniel Rateliff’s biggest London show to date arrived with winter. It’s blowing a gale outside, as people shuffle into the cavernous exposed brick work of the Village Underground, peeling off hats, gloves and thick winter coats. But Mr Rateliff’s voice acted as a burning log fire; the brass of his band, a soothing hot toddy, warming everyone up from the inside out, from the moment they wandered on stage.
It’s been some time coming, this show. A long time touring solo musician, Rateliff acquired his Night Sweats two years ago. A ramshackle lot, they throw themselves into their art, flailing trumpets and hammering keys; they play like the Muppets. Soulful, hard living muppets, who look like they’ve walked straight out of a speakeasy. With this bunch, who resemble Dexys in both appearance and sound, Rateliff has really found himself. Whereas before he was a perfectly pleasant singer/songwriter, specialising in folkish Americana, now he has a platform to do that most tricky of things: play convincing, relevant soul music.
Most importantly he’s found his voice; a big, gravelly beast of a voice that fills rooms with such bravado and passion that he doesn’t need to do the stage chatter thing. Indeed tonight, save for a few ‘thanks for comings’, a plea to “vote Sanders, y’all” and an introduction of the band, all he does by way of acknowledging the crowd is to tip his drink in their direction. He’s transformed from mawkish troubadour to a full-on band leader.
Comparisons could easily be made to Van Morrison and Otis Redding – in fact, the band’s self-titled debut, which came out in the summer, was released on Stax, and the label’s trademark foot stomping RnB and soul oozes from it from start to finish. It’s just glorious; simple songs sung with bucket loads of passion, and it’s these bigger, stomp-alongs that translate near perfectly to the live stage.
They start with the album’s opener, I Need Never Get Old. A highly charged brass intro sees Rateliff lay his cards on the table; and as he shakes his huge beard, waving his heavily tattooed arms about his sides, it all feels reassuringly authentic; there’s no glossy, retro production here. Elsewhere, S.O.B feels victorious – and the reaction feels much more like an old Stax classic than a single from a two-month-old album. Like all good soul men, he vents a lifetime of frustration through his choruses. His bawdy: “Son of a bitch, give me a drink!” leads into anthemic ‘woahs’, which the audience continue not just after the band initially leave the stage but well into the encore, the crowd harmonising with the band over the next song.
Some of the slower moments didn’t hit the mark in quite the same way; as the opportunity to clap, whoop and dance die, so too does the crowd’s attention, but these moments are few and far between. Tonight showed Rateliff – and The Night Sweats – for what they are; grafters, who’ve finally stumbled upon what they should be doing. And doing it brilliantly.