Nathaniel Rateliff is not one to emote on stage. Or so he told those of us in the audience at the Wonder Ballroom on January 23, the first show of his sold-out, two-night stay in Portland. Much of his band’s self-titled album was recorded in Cottage Grove, just south of Eugene, and he got a little quiet as he talked about Oregon. He quickly snapped out of it, though: “I’m not gonna get all sentimental or some bullshit like that,” he said. “I’ll just stick with what I know.” And with that, the band launched right back into their set.
Much earlier in the night, opening act Paper Bird took the stage in their self-proclaimed second home. Like Rateliff, they hail from Denver, and have been accompanying The Night Sweats since mid-January, when they began the Pacific Northwest leg of their international tour. Although I didn’t know what “indie folk/baroque pop” meant, I quickly found out.
The six-piece opened their first song with a decisive bass downbeat, and from there launched into a harmony-rich set. All three singers’ voices blended so seamlessly that it could have been a looping, prerecorded track of one vocalist and I wouldn’t have known the difference. That is, until Carleigh Aikins—the latest addition to Paper Bird, having joined just last year—let loose with a Stevie Nicks-esque rasp. As the band finished their set, it only seemed fitting that they asked the audience to join in on their final song, a flawless, raw cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”—watch a live rendition of this below.
The half-hour between sets passed by quickly, with sightings of band members Patrick Meese (drums) and Wesley Watkins (trumpet) pumping up the crowd well before the first note rang out. As the band filed on stage, they slowly built up the intro to “I Need Never Get Old,” vamping until Rateliff sang the first lines.
As The Night Sweats played through an hour-and-a-half set, the music grew heavily nostalgic for old-school blues and soul. In songs with a straight-ahead feel, I was drawn to watching Rateliff’s feet: Anyone who’s seen clips of the band live knows he likes to glide around in his boots, and this show was no exception. In fact, each member of the band displayed some signature dance moves, from the funk-infused strut of Watkins during songs like “Look It Here,” to the meditative nodding of bassist Joseph Pope III during “Shake,” which showcased a colorful guitar jam complete with a slinking bassline and floating piano tones.
The band played back and forth between melody and rhythm until several people rushed the stage for the inevitable closer, the band’s wildly popular “S.O.B.” As they exited the stage, the infamous chant from the song (listen below), along with some involuntary stomping, rippled through the crowd. The band teased at an encore, with members intermittently peeking through the curtains, until they filed back on stage. Like the opening act, The Night Sweats paid apt homage with their encore, covering The Band’s “The Shape I’m In” with some heavier bass and guitar added in.
Although he claims to have no patience for the sentimental and nostalgic, Rateliff clearly wishes to honor those who came before him, and his band did it well on Saturday night, taking the best from decades past and bending it into a new, unique-yet-familiar sound.