The threat of rain didn’t keep the crowds away from Virginia Credit Union Live! last week, as Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats delivered a heaping helping of high-caliber Southern R&B. George Wethington was on hand to report back about the highs and lows of the evening.
Tuesday, September 28 was an autumn day with cool and warm breezes that opposed each other like friendly rivals. As day became afternoon, the sky threatened rain in a way that makes lazy roofers yearn for it to pour like draft domestic beer. This would be of no import to the bands playing the pavilion that night at Virginia Credit Union Live!, but I thought about the event staff and the people on the lawn.
I had been listening to Bahamas and Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats for the past few days to get a feel again for their studio sound and pay attention to the translation of songs from studio to stage. This would prove to be a night of contrasts and comparisons.
I got there early with my partner to get a feel for the venue, which neither of us had been to. We grabbed some hot dogs. There was no chili, so we did not suck on them. Life goes on. The venue was a simple steel structure of I-beams and corrugated metal roofing, with a concrete floor that illuminated the shortcomings of my flat-soled Vans. Wear dad shoes if you plan on standing in the pit area for any show.
The steady haze of Richmond pollution muted the sunset, making bags-of-grape-cotton-candy cumulus clouds as the night brought darkness and eventually what little rain the day would have. People trickled in with polite and muffled laughter. There was a palpable excitement and anticipation for the evening, which was the product of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats’s tour promoting their upcoming album, The Future, out on Stax Records November 5. With so many gathering to hear music from a man adopted by a record company that was responsible for the shamanic sound of southern soul and the likes of Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, it was no wonder the crowd had the hardly secular and medicinal feeling of a playful gathering of kindred spirits.
First up to coo for the expectant crowd was Bahamas, who has performed for the likes of Jimmy Kimmel and garnered acclaim with songs like “All I’ve Ever Known” and “Lost in the Light.” From home speakers, these songs offer cerebral and celestial soundscapes that bring to mind the reverent and inviting feeling of Willie Nelson’s famed standards album, Stardust. There is an infectious and calming listenability to his songs that could have him on in the morning, on a long drive, a romantic evening, or a fall day. If you want relaxing, this man slaps.
Now for the contrast. I don’t go to shows expecting a repeat of an album, just how the artist chooses to translate the performance of the songs. In an ironic stroke of luck, Bahamas’s backing band of fellow Canadians were turned away at the border, either for past crimes or as an act of mercy. That meant his set was just him and an electric guitar, which he played well. However, he hadn’t taken the time to rearrange the songs without the band.
He chose to use his banter between songs to explain to us instead how expensive the band was that couldn’t come, and tried to liven the solos that he played, regardless of accompaniment, by saying the word “guitar” beforehand. I noticed the polished gleam of the watch above the left hand he was using to demonstrate his prowess of the pentatonic scale, and realized that if he pawned that and split the money with the guy playing buckets outside, he could have an affordable drummer and a relatable set. The whole performance was played with the same self-aware indifference communicated by an entirely denim outfit. The audio engineer did a great job mixing the airy timbre of Bahamas’s generous baritone with the bright and shatteringly open sound of his guitar.
Between the sets, I talked to Gary, the kindly and curious security guard for RMC Events, who were putting on the show. Judging by the ferocity of his regal, commanding, wisdom-whitened handlebar mustache, Gary was a natural at holding the line. He had an easy night.
Up next was the grand finale. The Night Sweats stormed in with a boisterous and triumphant entrance. Entering stage right, Nathaniel Rateliff danced and broke ground as he held a stylish microphone to deliver the stompy opener “Look it Here”. Throughout the set, the backing band helped Mr. Rateliff deliver a joyous and victorious translation of his nostalgic sound, which was more horn-driven than L.A. traffic. He delivered the song “Howling at Nothing” with a soulful sinner’s sensibility, which called to mind the searing and urgent hopefulness of Sam Cooke.
He used his punchy and stinging tenor to deliver the single “Survivor,” which has a great music video out by Brantley Gutierrez. Gutierrez aptly uses boxing as the theme for the video, and the song sounds like interval training, with a driving and steady melody that soars into the upper register periodically. The song hits very hard live and if you pay attention to the lyrics, you might catch the hook.
He played the single “Redemption,” from the movie Palmer, starring Justin Timberlake. It was catchy but repetitive, like it was written to be chopped up and put into a movie.
The ensemble pushed the eager crowd to a riotous crescendo with “I Need Never Get Old” and left them wanting more after they left the stage. Soon enough, they got it.
The band encored first with “Hey Mama,” exhibiting Mr. Rateliff’s country influences. He twisted across the stage and used a raucous and gravelly shout to deliver “S.O.B.,” which slayed. They rounded out the night with “Love Don’t Treat You Like I Do,” which had a nice marching rhythm to mark their exit.
It has been a long time since many of us have seen people laugh, dance, play, or sing. We saw it all that night. I, for one, am a freshly baptized and confirmed fan of Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats, and am going to keep Bahamas on the speakers until he can return with either affordable healthcare or a backing band.
Top Photo by Brandon Brown/Virginia Credit Union LIVE!