While he expressed a lot of uncertainty about his tour kickoff in Minneapolis this week, Nathaniel Rateliff was very firm on at least one point.
“This isn’t any signal of the Night Sweats being over,” the Denver-based singer/songwriter assured fans of his regular band, who count the Twin Cities among their top markets. “I just needed to do something for myself for a little while.”
That something was his new solo album, “And It’s Still Alright,” which his latest road trek is built around.
Issued in February with reviews praising the musical changeup, the record is a decidedly more intimate, mellow and downbeat collection than “S.O.B.,” “I Need Never Get Old” and the other rowdy soul-rock tunes Rateliff has been churning out for the past half-decade with the Night Sweats.
Many of the new songs were written in the aftermath of divorce and the sudden death in 2018 of a close friend, Night Sweats producer Richard Swift.
Talking by phone from New York last week before his appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” the 41-year-old singer explained how making this album helped him lick those wounds. He still feels a bit emotionally raw, though, which has him a tad nervous about playing the new tunes live, starting with his nearly sold-out shows Tuesday and Wednesday at the State Theatre.
“I’m hoping as the tour goes on, I won’t have to explain the songs every night,” he said. “And hopefully we’ve come up with a great enough show, it’ll allow people to have their own interpretations of the songs.”
He also hopes fans read into the fact that most of his upcoming gigs are in sit-down theaters and not the larger and more festive venues he and the Night Sweats typically play (such as Surly Brewing Festival Field here, which they packed last summer). He’s touring with a more stripped-down but still sizable unit this time around. They will also perform at a rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday night in St. Paul ahead of Tuesday's Super Tuesday primary.
“We’re playing places like [the State] in most cities, if only to make it a clearer distinction between this and the Night Sweats,” he said.
“I’m sure there will still be some people not paying attention to what’s going on who will say, ‘This isn’t the Nathaniel Rateliff I know and came to see! Where’s ‘S.O.B.?!’ Hopefully that doesn’t happen a lot, or we win them over if it does.”
New songs like the softly strummed, slow-bobbing album opener “What a Drag” and the ethereally twangy single “And It’s Still Alright” definitely don’t sound like “S.O.B.” — although that high-energy, horn-blasting 2015 hit also came from a personal place, since it was based on Rateliff’s fight to give up drinking.
The singer further wrestled with sobriety in the rut of sad circumstances leading up to this record, a struggle he shared with Swift, who died of kidney and liver distress.
Before his passing, Swift — who also produced or played as a sideman for the Shins, the Black Keys and Damien Jurado — actually talked to Rateliff about making a solo record like this.
“I was going through my separation and divorce as I was making the second Night Sweats record, but I didn’t really deal with it or talk about it with that record,” he recounted. “It was too sensitive, I guess — the kind of thing that made sense tackling on a record with Richard. But then he passed away.”
Rateliff said he “still wanted to make good on my commitment” and thus headed to Oregon to make the bulk of the album at Swift’s studio. Recording there “definitely had its hard moments,” he said, but in the end he was glad he did it.
“I felt good being there and still trying to make the kind of record we wanted to make together,” he said, singling out Swift’s albums with Jurado. “Those Damien records have such a unique, specific sound that I wanted, and a lot of it comes from that room. We had to do it there.
“So to me, this record sounds like Richard and has his spirit in it.”
It isn’t all downers, though. The lightly jazzy “All or Nothing” boasts a Harry Nilsson-like buoyancy. “Expecting to Lose” — way more upbeat than the title suggests — has a bluesy, hard-clapping energy that hews close to Night Sweats territory.
Night Sweats drummer Patrick Meese wound up coproducing the record along with Beach House drummer James Barone, both of whom are part of Rateliff’s band for this tour. The backing unit also features Night Sweats guitarist Luke Mossman and bassist Joseph Pope.
Rateliff said they will likely play a couple of Night Sweats-branded songs — “ones that fit in well with this material” — but mostly he plans to “keep them separate.” He also plans to pull out a few songs from the largely overlooked solo albums he made before forming the Night Sweats, including the 2010 Rounder Records release “In Memory of Loss.”
“This seemed like a good opportunity to revisit some of that material and pull it off live in a way that I didn’t get to back then,” he said, laughing at a question about why those albums failed to garner the kind of attention he later got with the Night Sweats.
“I don’t really know, and obviously if there was a clear solution I would’ve chosen it instead of struggling all those years. But I think that taught me to not take anything for granted when the Night Sweats really started to do well, because it really was a surprise.”
That’s all the more reason to believe we can expect more from the band.