Jazz Festival Explosion: Dark Times Influenced Nathaniel Rateliff’s The Future

The American roots rocker, who plays the jazz festival on July 5, wrote much of his recent album with The Night Sweats at a time of global upheaval.

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Nathaniel Rateliff is coming to Montreal to play at the international jazz festival, headlining the big outdoor show on Tuesday. But his visit here will likely also include a trip to the cemetery.

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In a recent phone interview from Lewiston, NY, where he was scheduled to perform, the American roots rocker opened up about his main musical influences.

“At first I really wanted to be known as a guitarist, so I was in love with Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters and a lot of blues players,” Rateliff said. “I kind of cut my teeth on that. At the same time I discovered Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, then finally The Band and Bob Dylan together, then The Band records. Also a lot of Stax artists (legendary southern soul label). Lots of southern and northern soul and R&B. All this had a great influence on me.

When he is in Montreal, he said he could pay homage to one of those major influences, Cohen.

“I usually take a short walk to visit his grave (when I come to Montreal),” Rateliff said. “It’ll be the 4th of July when I’m there and a good friend of ours, our producer (Richard Swift), died four years ago on the 3rd of July, so I’d like to go do something to try to remember him. So I’m probably going to walk around the cemetery that day. Go up to Mount Royal and go for a walk.

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Cohen is buried in Congregational Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery on the side of Mount Royal.

You can hear all of these influences in Rateliff’s music, both on his folk-flavored solo records and on the full band’s more rock albums with the Night Sweats. I told him that the last album with the Night Sweats, The Future, reminded me a bit of Dylan’s last gritty bluesy record, Rough and Rowdy Ways.

“His last record was a good record right off the bat,” Rateliff said.

Rateliff had done well with his previous solo fare, but it was the release of the debut album with the Night Sweats in 2015 that attracted a much wider audience. Jimmy Fallon had seen a YouTube video of the band and fell in love with them, inviting them to his late-night talk show to perform their inspirational soul anthem SOB All of a sudden, they were a whole lot more important.

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“I was surprised,” Rateliff said. “When I was doing the Night Sweats record with Richard Swift, it felt really good to me. It was like people were going to react. But that’s kind of how you feel on a lot of records and there’s no guaranteed that people will get it or love it. We released it with the same excitement and care that we do anything. But it was definitely a surprise when people latched onto it.

Many of The Future’s songs were written during the COVID-19 pandemic. The singer-songwriter says the dark times, both due to the pandemic but also the bitter division in American politics, have colored the lyrics. A good example of this is Survivor, which was a hit on both sides of the border last year. He had started writing it a few years earlier, but its meaning changed as the world around him changed.

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“I started working on this song when I was finishing Night Sweats’ second album, Tearing at the Seams,” Rateliff said. “At the time I was going through a bunch of personal stuff, I was going through a divorce and I initially tied it to that. Then coming to the song again in the pandemic, the context had changed for me and it wasn’t so much about that previous relationship as talking about the administration (Trump) at the time, or maybe not even only from the administration, but make a statement that “we are survivors”.

“There are a lot of criticisms about politics and religious ideals that I don’t agree with. It’s quite difficult here. Rather scary. It’s like, as an American, where are you going? … The lack of separation between church and state is increasingly becoming a problem here. We have such a conservative Supreme Court. I do not know what to do. I may try to move to Nova Scotia or Quebec.

Nathaniel Rateliff and night sweats will give a free outdoor concert on the TD Stage at Place des Festivals on Tuesday, July 5 at 9:30 p.m.

The 42nd Montreal International Jazz The festival continues until July 9. For program, tickets and more information, visit montrealJazzfest.com.

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