Nathaniel Rateliff wasn’t an overnight success, but it might seem that way. The Missouri-born artist spent years in the folk clubs of his adopted home of Denver, Colo., and made four singer/songwriter-style albums before developing the high-test, Band-influenced soul sound of the smash eponymous debut album by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats (Stax/Concord, June 2015).
Now Rateliff and his six- or seven-piece band (two or three horns, depending on the gig) are playing to blissed out, sold-out houses all around the country. The atmosphere when they launch into their encore—the desperate but raucous hit single “S.O.B.”—is Springsteen-esque. Rateliff can walk away from the mic for a chorus, and the audience will carry on without him: “Son of a bitch! Give me a drink! If I can’t get clean, I’m gonna drink my life away…” It’s got to be a huge kick for an artist who has paid his dues to find that fans all over the country know every word.
The Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats tour reached Mix’s backyard in the San Francisco Bay Area at the end of January; we attended one of two sold-out shows at the historic Fillmore, where veteran front-of-house and studio engineer Jamie Mefford mixed on the venue’s Midas H3000 board.
Mefford has known Rateliff since the artist’s folkier days. “I started doing live sound more than 10 years ago, but I still worked in studios a lot, too, and that’s how I met Nathaniel,” says Mefford, who also mixes live for singer/songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov. “During his more folky phase, I produced and recorded two of his records [Falling Faster Than You Can Run and a limited-edition Night Sweats EP]. I’ve been working with him live on and off for a couple of years. Sometimes when Nathaniel was in Denver and had a bigger show or we crossed paths on tour, I’d go out and mix him live, but it didn’t become a regular thing till about three months ago.”
Front-of-house engineer Jamie Mefford. Photo: Todd Berkowitz
Mefford is carrying a minimal supply of mics and backline on this tour; the items he brings along are mainly to handle gaps that might not be filled by club arsenals.
“We’ve been doing so many fly dates in the past few months, it hasn’t allowed us to carry a lot of gear, so it’s been an adventure in that way—showing up and making it work with whatever they have, and filling in with backline,” Mefford says. “We bring a couple of clip-on Shure Beta 98s for the horns, to keep that consistent for them. I’m also carrying a couple of Shinybox ribbon mics that I use on guitars.”
One of the reasons Mefford feels comfortable with such a small road package is that he finds that the main attraction—Rateliff’s sweet but powerful voice—works best with a mic that’s commonly found in venues’ inventories. “We’ve had the best luck with a standard Shure SM58,” the engineer says. “Nathaniel is a very dynamic singer, and he has a brighter voice when he really pushes hard. The 58 handles it really well without getting too peak-y sounding. In those upper mids, where some other mics might get painfully peak-y, the 58 is smooth enough but also cuts through enough.”
Getting individual elements to cut through is definitely one of Mefford’s main jobs. The sheer volume of this band onstage—guitars, bass, drums, horns, and keyboards, with every group member also singing—puts up a huge wall of sound.
“The job is to make them as dynamic as possible—to find moments when I can pull them back or really push them hard. That’s my biggest challenge every night—making sure the show is dynamic in a way that has an emotional quality,” Mefford says.
Nathaniel Rateliff at the Neptune Theater in Seattle in late January 2016. Photo: Todd Berkowitz
“The other thing is to make it sound old,” he continues. “We’re trying to make it sound like a James Brown show in 1960. And a lot of these theaters, including The Fillmore [with a Meyer Sound MICA line array P.A.] are actually too good for what we want, weirdly, because I want the mix to sound like it’s coming off a tape machine from 50 years ago.
“So it’s a matter of smoothing everything out, rounding things off, and avoiding having anything that’s overly bright or too big on the low end. I’m carving out everything on the low end so it sounds a little more like that era.
“Often this is more about tuning the room to get it to sound that way before show time, with house EQs, and then throwing up as many ribbons as I can get my hands on to warm things up,” Mefford continues. “I’m also using a fair amount of slapback echo and shorter, warmer plate-style reverbs to keep the sound period-correct. And I carry a little Strymon tape echo—kind of a guitar pedal—that I use for vocals.”
Vocals are also the main focus of the monitor mix. Mefford has been taking care of the band’s house-provided wedges most nights in addition to his FOH duties. Friend of the band and monitor engineer James Barone joined the tour for the Fillmore shows and several others, but he also tours with Father John Misty and plays drums in Beach House, so he had to move on.
“Nathaniel likes to have a lot of volume in his vocals,” Mefford says. “In fact, since they all sing, most of them just take their vocals and not much else. With all those amps onstage, their stage volume is really a good mix for them, and then they just take vocals in their monitors. It’s the only way to make sure they can hear each other sing.”