The Soul of Nathaniel Rateliff

Sold-out Austin City Limits warmup prompts a dance sprawl

When Nathaniel Rateliff sings – as he did Thursday night at a sold-out Scoot Inn – veins bulge on his neck, sweat pours off him, and his face flushes bright red. He downed whiskey shots quick as if to coax that rasp. His guttural wails and frenzied dance moves evoke James Brown, which explains his Austin City Limits taping on Sunday.

Photo by Gary Miller

Photo by Gary Miller

Some say soul music comes from the catharsis of pain. No question why the genre rose as a flag of resistance to celebrate the communal black experience and struggle during the Civil Rights Era. For this reason, it’s proven historically difficult for white artists to gain critics’ stamp of authentically. That wasn’t a problem for Van Morrison, Dusty Springfield, Amy Winehouse, and now Nathaniel Rateliff.

Don’t be fooled. Before becoming funk bandleader to his backing band the Night Sweats, Rateliff encountered his own obstacles: a childhood in rural Missouri, the death of his father, and several failed artistic reinventions. You could hear it on last night’s opener, “I Need Never Get Old,” from August’s eponymous debut for legendary Memphis soul imprint Stax Records.

Rateliff made you believe he’s carrying the weight of weathered disappoints as he roared, “I needed your love, I’m burning away/ I need never get old.” He channels a lovelorn Casanova that’s been beaten and torn by foiled relationships with the earnest and longing croons of Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. Yet all the credit shouldn’t be given to the frontman.

If it weren’t for his Night Sweats, Rateliff might still be lost amongst his solo folk material. Now, his pipes have found a home, snuggly fit between take-us-to-church keys, horn choruses, and softly reverbed chords. The textured Sixties nuance of “Shake” and sultry waltz “Mellow Out” boasted harmonies that could hold a candle to the Isley Brothers and the Supremes as they reverberated across the crisp, cold air.

The band’s doo-wop and Motown grooves incarnate a time where the Booker T. & the MG’s churned out soul classics at Stax. The Scoot Inn thus became a dance sprawl. Since he bears his influences on his sleeve, however, the pastiche can’t mask the conventionality of Rateliff’s songwriting. Despite lascivious howling and romping melodies, it all became nostalgic and got repetitive near the latter part of the set.

Yet a charismatic belter is hard to find nowadays. And Rateliff’s aggression and grit transcended him from R&B retro into an omniscient bandleader in the set closer, “S.O.B.” There’s an underlying anger that itches for a bar brawl. His croons ricocheted between compulsive and controlled as he unraveled the rugged complications of love and “drinking his life away” with no trepidation.

Photo by Gary Miller

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Nathaniel Rateliff, Van Morrison, Dusty Springfield, Amy Winehouse, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Booker T. & the MG’s, Stax Records, Motown, Isley Brothers, Supremes

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