Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats play the kind of music that made Austin City Limits the empire that it is — a grownup, professional-grade hybrid of blues, rock, soul, folk, and country music. Though the band only formed in 2013, it’s easy to imagine the Denver eight-piece taping an ACL session in the old studio on the University of Texas campus. It feels like they have been playing together for ages.
Rateliff could easily have filled the old, small space with his voice and stage presence, wailing over a swell of organ and horns. But rather than the old studio’s skyline silhouette behind them, the actual Austin skyline loomed large and sparkly in the 4 p.m. sun as Rateliff and band performed at the festival’s biggest stage.
The lyrics were a challenge to make out in the huge crowd, but thousands still sang along and bounced joyfully to tambourine-tinged, white-guy R&B.
Early in the show, Rateliff assessed his enormous ACL crowd: “Man, there’s a lot of you! In the sun! Lots of white people getting burned out there.”
Sunburned or not, the crowd seemed in good spirits, especially excited to hear “Shake” and radio hit “S.O.B.”
Rateliff was a natural follow to the Samsung stage’s earlier big-draw, “Dime Store Cowgirl” Kacey Musgraves, and it was impressive to think how far the institution of Austin City Limits has come in 40 years. So many influential artists have paved the way for this weekend’s strong showing by country and soul artists.
Underscoring that history, the fans around me played a spontaneous game of musical “fill in the blank” during Rateliff’s set. As each song hit its groove, someone would call out, “Ooh, hey, now he reminds me of _____________!” Here is the list of the different ways those fans in the shade at stage right finished that sentence:
“. . . Sam Cooke!”
“. . . Joe Cocker!”
“ . . .The Band!”
“ . . . Otis Redding!”
“ . . . Sturgill Simpson!”
“. . . Van Morrison!”
“ . . . Nakia Reynoso!”
“. . . James Brown!”
Rateliff and band threw themselves into the performance like the greats, with bruising tambourine, intense facial expressions, and coordinated dancing by the horn and sax players. Their style of music felt over-represented at the festival, but then again, it has long been ACL’s bread and butter.
“When I was a kid my mom taught me how to dance,” the singer shared in some of the only stage banter that was decipherable from the far sidelines. Apparently Mom taught Rateliff well.
“Those are some ‘Get on the Good Foot’ moves,” my friend said appreciatively as she watched the giant screen on the side of the stage.
The hootenanny ended with a tip of Rateliff’s hat and smiles all around.