Shame the floor at the Turf Club isn't stickier. When Colorado-by-way-of-Missouri barroom revivalist Nathaniel Rateliff took the stage on Wednesday night in St. Paul, it didn't feel right being able to freely move my feet.
Rising under a plucky intro by his backing band the Night Sweats, Rateliff came out in a haze of snake oil and holy water. He stretched his paisley kerchief until it let go of his neck, smiling with the uneven eyes of a grifter. What Rateliff makes is soul music for the soulless, and as he and his comrades set into the first of many rhythm 'n' booze jams, it feels odd to not be dancing through puddles and ankle-high broken bottles.
Four words landed Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats on the national radar: "SON OF A BITCH!" It's those same four words that put them here, at the Turf club, oscillating between salvation and damnation like the real sons of bitches they are. Rateliff and his crew look as though they've been handed their instruments along with 15 Hail Marys and an order to stop throwing rocks at abandoned cars. Now, they throw rocks with bluesy licks and blackened cowboy boots.
It's that ne'er-do-well attitude that endeared the histrionic seven-piece ensemble to the crowd at the Turf. Around me were the finest lushes and bootleggers in the Twin Cities, and they relished Rateliff's woeful affairs ("I Need Never Get Old", "Trying So Hard Not to Know") and drank to the idea that heartbreak and good-timin' are complementary muses.
This is the resonant charm of Rateliff & the Night Sweats: They sing irredeemable redemption songs. They're an uncle's broken promise — the halfhearted apology that ends a drunken stupor. Despite the fact that there's nothing innovative about bluesing up some self-inflicted sorrow, the Night Sweats succeed by tapping into the forlorn hopes of the romantic fuck up in all of us.
Throughout the show, it was hard to parse exactly where Rateliff & the Night Sweats were in their set. Amorphous, hard-nosed stomps emerged from gentle hymns with a sudden boil, rolling over into guitar solos before calming back to a two-step. Only "Howling at Nothing" — the band's second single, which sounds like a backwoods Van Morrison B-side — emerged as a defined shape in the greasy square dance of the night.
By the time the Night Sweats came to "Shake" — the trembling, seductive gospel number that punches the band's self-titled August debut — it's clear that the only salvation is to give in to the hedonism of the moment. Tongue-sucking makeout sessions erupted in the corners of the room. The guy in front of me didn't know whether to throw up praise hands or devil horns. Both were appropriate gesticulations.
There's something so absolutely galvanizing about the chorus of "S.O.B.," the song Rateliff choose to end his set. It can be felt in the deepest, driest sockets of the spirit. There's a clutching intensity to how Rateliff abandons all good intentions for the cold comfort of the bottle — one that's made radio stations question the song's moral value while still resigning to play it (a lot). When you hear it for the first time, you instantly know it was exactly what you needed. It's a sensation Rateliff managed to recreate four times during his main-set encore.
Every cathartic howl of "SON OF A BITCH!" was perfect, especially the last, wherein Rateliff teased the crowd, taking the music down and introducing his band, seemingly bowing out for the night. But just when it seemed as though the show was over and Rateliff had gone out with candor and graciousness, he pivoted, held the silence a moment, and let out the biggest, most frenzied wail of the night.
Irredeemable, yes, but undeniable still.
Critic's bias: I'd only ever heard "S.O.B." and "Howling at Nothing" prior to the show, which I was assigned to cover five hours before doors. I was glad to take the gig on short notice, though, as that small sample size had my primed to hear more.
Random notebook dump: An abridged list of people Nathaniel Rateliff looks like: Bray Wyatt, Shane Smith from VICE, Action Bronson, skinnier George R.R. Martin, all these dudes.
Notes on the opener: When I walked into the Turf Club, I didn't even know a band was on stage. The ambient music was so soft that I'd assumed the opener had finished and we were waiting for Rateliff to take the stage. Only after I'd elbowed my way to the front did I realize Land Lines were still playing. They were very elegant — soft and baroque with their cello and tinky electric organ. An odd opener for a Southern stomp band, but pretty excellent in their own right.
The crowd: Love this fuckin' guy.
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