Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
Over the course of five days this past late-April, as the pollen counts were high and the seeds were just getting tucked into their black earth beds for a roast, there were some very specific and very emotional, nightly occurrences that I and a small collection of others - who saw the same things consecutively for those five nights - will likely draw upon for the rest of our lives. It's a bold thing to say that, as much as the births of our children and other such pivotal moments in any human existence, what was witnessed every evening in some wooden barns in far-off corridors of Midwestern lands was so lasting and earnest - but it's the truth. What was witnessed on some stormy nights, mostly cloudy nights or nights that have no known peers for their exactness, was a band in Nathaniel Rateliff's five-piece travel set that easily spoke to souls every single time it was its time to perform. It was a group of people - two life-long friends from a town of 60 people in small-town Missouri and the other three dedicated friends picked up along the way out to and in Denver, where they now all live - who demonstrated the vast and yet simple explanations of loving and care for others. They poured each other glasses of wine, into red plastic cups, rarely left each others' sides and showed what it means to be doing something together - doing something because it's greater than all of the smaller parts put together. We can all only hope for something similar in our lives, but this is only a small, small portion of this group's excellence and it still has nothing to do with its music. Or does it?
Nathaniel Rateliff, upright bass player Julie Davis, pianist James Han, guitarist Joseph Pope III and drummer Ben DeSoto are the kind of band that comes along so infrequently that we tend to believe that they don't exist. They couldn't possibly exist so purely. They give to us everything from within, looking for none of it back after they've finished. Rateliff locks his droopy eyes to yours and he pours all of the pain, all of the loss, all of the longing and all of the forecasted uncertainty into you, just giving it all over, letting you deal with it. Most times, this is an overpowering exchange that leaves you utterly moved to shivers or tears and it also leaves you thankful that it just happened. You wouldn't have preferred it any other way. He's a songwriter who embodies - more so than any other that I can think of right now - an ethos that appreciates the many struggles and how they can improve a man, how they can enlighten a man and make a man feel as if he's actually glowing, not dying, despite so many others suggesting otherwise. One of our great friends Brooks Strause has a line in one of his songs that goes, "And soon when I am dead all I'll have is what I've said and that's why I'm smiling," and this strikes me as an apt way of hearing Rateliff, with songs of fighting and bruising really just covers for someone looking for great love - for a love that he seems to have found these days. He wants to be what his words make him, be what the sentiments are and what they are happen to be the most heartbreakingly beautiful things you'll hear all year.
"In Memory Of Loss" is a debut album that can destroy you - its beauty just too much to handle. "We Never Win" provides something autobiographical, it feels, with Rateliff singing, "He's a manic boy/Looks a lot like me/Looks a lot like me/And he shares the blame/With a younger face/It's hard and rushed to see/And it's hard for us to see/But I can tell/Is it cold enough/Does it chatter yer teeth/And the wind won't set you free/And it never has/Like an old time revival/Shake your hands/And shake your hips/Put up all my armor/Let me stand bare with just two fists." And then we have a song that the band likes to end its sets with almost every night. It's not on any of their recordings, taped for the first time when they were here last, but the emotion in "Shroud," will sustain life. It could take the place of water and blood in a human body. When he sings, "And I've got no feeling about it at all/In this whole season of doubt and love/And I've got no reason to bury it here/I could fall backwards forever/I could be boxed inside and living without/Well don't blow my cover/It's taken years to make a beautiful shroud/I've got no use in talkin bout anything/And I can tell you it seems to be a-hauntin me/It does no good talking bout anything," and then it all escalates and builds and builds and then let's us off, to go live, we feel exactly as they do, happy just to be.