With the wave of a hand adorned with tattoos and turquoise rings, Nathaniel Rateliff motioned the cheering crowd to hush. A few hundred hard core fans were gathered among a thicket of trees on the Pendarvis Farm outside of Portland, Oregon, and the man who helms the Night Sweats didn’t want them getting all wound up for a sound check.
I was seated in sawdust at the front of a structure known as the Wood Stage. Crafted entirely of fallen branches bound together by rope, it resembled something closer to an alter than a stage. Whatever its original intention, it played an integral role in summoning magic over the three days of Pickathon 2019.
In that moment, it held three guitars, a couple of cases, a stool, a microphone, and a small amp. Almost exactly at 11pm, Nathaniel Rateliff walked back onto the stage, gave his fans a quick wave and seated himself in front of the microphone. He smiled warmly as he picked up one of the guitars and addressed the crowd, explaining how much he was enjoying the weekend.
He spoke about the days when “no one really gave a shit about what I was doing” with affection. Most people assume Denver’s folk hero and his current bandmates, The Night Sweats were an overnight success even though Rateliff had been playing solo and in various other bands years before “S.O.B.” hit the airwaves.
The self-titled album with the Night Sweats was also the first time Rateliff worked with producer Richard Swift. The two like-minded artists became fast friends and Swift would go on to produce Rateliff’s second collaboration with the Night Sweats Tearing at the Seams. Tragically, Swift passed away in July 2018, leaving several songs that he and Rateliff had been working on unfinished. A few of those songs made the setlist for the evening.
Rateliff once told Rolling Stone Magazine’s David Fricke that “my job is to be totally honest, to be open and available for the people we perform for.” True to his word, he wore the grief of Swift’s loss on his sleeve during his set at the Wood Stage on Sunday evening. He told stories, sang songs, laughed and cried.
The crowd was appreciative enough to remain silent while the Missouri native sang his soulful tunes and was so charmed by his warm, blue-collar wit that they also laughed and cried along with him. He spoke as though addressing friends around a campfire, and it was easy to feel connected to him and everyone who had come to see him play.
The song I enjoyed the most was “Whimper and Wail,” which in my interpretation is a song about toeing the line between hopelessness and acceptance. A refusal to see you could be worth something to someone else. It’s fair to say I can relate, so It was the song that resonated most with me..
Rateliff welled up as he introduced a song near the end of his set and spoke directly about the loss of his good friend, Richard Swift. It was an intimate and beautifully gut-wrenching performance, and a privilege to witness and feel part of. We all welled up with him, and when he finished the song we stood and clapped and cried.
Rateliff waved his jeweled hand again and motioned for everyone to sit down.
“I’m sorry but I’ve got one more song for you,” He grinned through some lingering tears. “I guess I’m guilty of oversharing.”
I concur. And I hope he makes a habit of it.