Hermann, Mo., is a city of more than 2,300 people nestled in the Missouri Rhineland, about an hour northeast of Jefferson City. It’s where Nathaniel Rateliff was born and raised. Music was part of his life, and his tastes were influenced as much by his surroundings as they were by his parents’ record collection.
“There isn’t much of a music scene in Hermann, unless you like polka,” Rateliff, 37, told The Star recently as he and his band, the Night Sweats, headed from Vancouver to Seattle. “But the landscape I grew up in is a part of me. I spent a lot of time in the woods doing a lot of nothing to break the boredom.”
He spent time listening to music, too, nourishing and developing an appreciation for the old-school soul sounds of Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MG’s and Van Morrison, a favorite of his father’s. He was later drawn to songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, which is the route Rateliff took when, as a young teenager, he started down the trail of folk music, learning guitar and writing songs.
After a brief spell as a missionary in Denver in the mid-1990s, Rateliff turned in earnest to music. With Joseph Pope III, his music sidekick for more than 20 years and a guitarist in the Night Sweats, he started working the folk scene in Denver.
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In 2007, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Wheel self-released “Desire and Dissolving Men.” He followed that with two solo recordings on Decca, a full-length and an EP, then, in 2011, the self-released “Falling Faster Than You Can Run.”
Rateliff received acclaim in various music quarters, especially while touring with the Lumineers, also part of the Denver music scene, and Bon Iver.
His music was down tempo and contemplative, but evocative. In a 2013 New York Times story about Denver’s robust music scene, music critic Jon Pareles described Rateliff’s “In Memory of Loss,” his first Decca album, as “a set of finely harmonized songs that move between sorrow and solace.” Of “Falling Faster,” the Guardian U.K. wrote: “There’s a lonely whippoorwill feel to Nathaniel Rateliff’s second album, as though he wrote it all in a woodland clearing near the log cabin home of Bon Iver’s ‘For Emma, Forever Ago.’ ”
It was about the time that he’d finished “Falling Faster” that Rateliff started thinking seriously about changing his tune.
“I’d finished a record and I wasn’t sure if it was going to come out or what the heck I was going to do with myself,” he said. “So I decided I’d give soul and R&B a shot.
He was aware of a resurgence of neo-soul by artists and bands like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley, St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Anderson East, but said that wasn’t what he was chasing.
“I wasn’t trying to catch a new sound or trend,” he said. “I just thought it would be a challenge to myself to see if I could do it.”
So he wrote a batch of songs that tapped into his affection for Sam and Dave, Redding, early Morrison and others. It also draws from one of Rateliff’s favorite bands, the Band.
“It’s R&B and soul with some twangy-ness in it,” he said. “Growing up in the middle of nowhere, there was a lot of twangy music around, but it didn’t really connect with me then. I wanted to mix in a little bit of that.”
It didn’t change the way he wrote songs, however.
“It’s funny, the process is still the same,” he said. “It’s still me kind of being whiny about life. But they sound so different.”
They also require a much different band, in this case a seven-piece band with a horn section.
“Someone asked us to play a show in Denver,” he said, “so I put together a band, and that kind of ended up being the band.”
In August, he released “Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats” on Concord Records, who released it on Stax Records, the fabled soul label Concord bought and revived about 10 years ago.
The album followed by several weeks the release of “Coming Home,” by heralded neo-soul phenom Leon Bridges, who has drawn comparisons to Redding and Sam Cooke.
In December at the Arvest Bank Theater at the Midland, Rateliff & the Night Sweats opened for Bridges, introducing themselves and their new sound to thousands of fans.
They had already been booked to perform at the RecordBar on Feb. 1, a show that was moved to the Riot Room after the RecordBar announced it was closing at the end of 2015. The show was moved again to the much larger Midland to meet ticket demands. The show has since sold out.
Fans are responding not just to the band’s old-school sound but also to its high-octane stage show. Rateliff is no longer the folkie with a guitar. He’s more John Belushi as “Joliet” Jake Blues in “The Blues Brothers.”
“From the first show, I went for it,” Rateliff said. “I thought I’d just be kind of a goofball and have a good time and not take myself so seriously. We wanted to entertain the fans more.”
The response has been positive everywhere. Before Rateliff and the band performed their hit, “S.O.B.,” on “The Tonight Show” on Aug. 5, host Jimmy Fallon tweeted: “If you believe in soul … if you believe in rock n roll … if you believe in performing your guts out … Enjoy the band on our show tonight.” After the performance, Fallon joined the band onstage, shouting:” Soulful! Soul-ful! That’s the way to do it right there!”
Immediately after that performance, the album jumped into the top five on the Billboard 200 chart, and “S.O.B” took off on alternative radio and at YouTube and Spotify, where streams now top 15 million.
The band has since hit the road hard, including a trip overseas and a performance on British TV music show “Later … With Jools Holland.”
“They really loved us (in the U.K.),” Rateliff said. “But even when I was doing the singer/songwriter thing, I always got a better response over there.”
The boy who grew up wandering the woods around Hermann and listening to soul masters is now a world traveler. He will return to England in February. Monday’s show at the Midland is the final U.S. stop before the band starts a six-week European tour that includes the U.K., France, Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland. Later tour stops include Australia and a show at Red Rocks, just west of Denver.
The plan is to strike while the hype is white-hot, so the road is where Rateliff and his band will be for much of 2016, even if it means putting aside more songwriting and recording and plotting the next step.
“Right now, we’re going to take advantage of this situation,” he said. “We’ll figure out how and when to come up with new stuff.”
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats perform at 8:30 p.m. Monday at the Arvest Bank Theater at the Midland, 1228 Main St. The show is officially sold out.