If there’s one thing Nathaniel Rateliff can really rock, it’s a hat. The burly, bearded singer, who is from small-town Missouri but makes Denver his home, has a guy in Boulder who’s been making his high-crown Western-style hats of late.
“I look at hats in a more practical sense, not just as a fashion statement,” says Rateliff, who is 39. “I’m always under the assumption the hat is actually gonna work for what I want it to do. As a general rule of thumb, you can’t let the hat wear you — you gotta wear the hat.”
There’s another thing Rateliff can rock, and that’s an ever-growing audience. His rule of thumb about hats is pretty much how he feels about making music, too. After some years toiling in comparative obscurity, he’s become a grassroots phenomenon by settling on a style he can wear, rather than one that wears him.
With his seven-piece band the Night Sweats, Rateliff has developed a super-soulful brand of Sunday morning music for Saturday night owls. Rateliff, who brings his band to the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion for a sold-out show on Friday, says he wasn’t exactly predisposed to the kind of outsize showmanship that has captured a wide swath of music lovers, from college students for whom “old school” might be the music of Sharon Jones or Amy Winehouse, to grizzled middle-agers nostalgic for the heyday of the great, gritty bar bands of the 1970s.
“I was always pretty shy,” says Rateliff, who still comes across, on the phone at least, as surprisingly soft-spoken and deliberate. “It was probably not until I was 20 or so that I realized I had a big voice.”
It’s big, all right. After several years leading local Denver bands Born in the Flood and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Wheel, he cut a couple of solo records, presenting himself as an introspective singer-songwriter. His wingman through all those changes was always bassist Joseph Pope III, his best friend from back home in Hermann, about an hour and a half west of St. Louis.
Frustrated that they hadn’t gained much traction outside Denver, the two friends were contemplating giving up on music a few years ago when they hit upon a last-ditch sound, the rowdy, horn-heavy R&B that became Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. On “S.O.B.,” the song that singlehandedly catapulted the band to national recognition after a storybook 2015 performance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Rateliff turned his own alcohol withdrawal into a defiant rave-up. “Son of a bitch!” he snarled. “Give me a drink!”
Fallon flipped over the band after a friend sent him a YouTube video.
“I just remember being backstage, getting makeup put on,” Rateliff says. “Jimmy kept playing our record and talking about it. I was asking people, ‘Is this good?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, this is great. He doesn’t normally do this.’”
The band’s self-titled debut went gold in the United States, and they soon followed it up with an EP called “A Little Something More.” After a bit of a well-deserved break, the band released their second official studio album, “Tearing at the Seams,” in March of this year.
The new album has plenty of moments of exuberance, if not quite delirium. But it’s also tempered by Rateliff’’s sadness over his split with his wife of more than a decade, Jules. “Babe I Know” is a Sam Cooke-style torch song; other song titles (“You Worry Me,” the title track) are further glimpses into heartache. He’s been listening to a lot of Nina Simone over the past year, he says.
Rateliff’s first solo album, “In Memory of Loss,’ came out in 2010 on Rounder Records, right around the time when the long-running Massachusetts label was being acquired by Concord Music Group. He recently reissued the record on vinyl.
“They were my first introduction to the record business,” Rateliff says of Rounder. “We were all pretty naive about it. I feel like those songs kind of tell the story, the progression of the way I write. And my life, I guess, and the lives of the friends around me, too.”
Though the relationship was short-lived, he still has fans around the Rounder camp.
‘I feel like those songs kind of tell the story, the progression of the way I write. And my life, I guess, and the lives of the friends around me, too.’
“We loved his voice and his songs then, and we love them now,” says Marion Leighton Levy, one of the three friends who co-founded the label in 1970.
“We see it as an evolution,” says Levy. What Rateliff is doing now “is very consistent with what he was back then. It’s really all about the songs. He’s just showcased that much better, the way he’s produced and presented now.”
The Night Sweats are signed to Stax, the classic soul and R&B label out of Memphis.
“I feel like they’re still trying to be a big part of their community,” Rateliff says, “and that’s something I want to be a part of.”
As a working musician, he approaches the job not unlike the evangelical missions that first brought him to Denver as a younger man.
“Playing shows, I feel like I want to put myself in a position where I’m giving myself to the audience. I feel like it is a service, you know?”James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.