Nathaniel Rateliff, Marcus Mumford talk Ball Arena concert in Denver

After more than two decades in music, and lessons from friends, fans and collaborators such as Mavis Staples, Willie Nelson and Robert Plant, Denver singer-songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff has learned the power of owning a massive stage.

“It feels a whole lot different being the headliner than it does opening for someone,” Rateliff said via phone from his home in the foothills of unincorporated Jefferson County. “It doesn’t matter as much when you’re opening if the set’s poor, because it’s not really your show. It falls heavily on the headliner — and in this case, that’s us.”

On Friday, Dec. 16, Rateliff and his band the Night Sweats will play the biggest headlining set of their career at Ball Arena, home of the Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets, but also indoor concerts from Elton John, Taylor Swift, Bruce Springsteen, Lizzo and U2.

The all-ages show is the highest-profile test of the Night Sweats’ audience draw, having already headlined and sold out venues such as Red Rocks Amphitheatre (capacity 9,545) after going mainstream in the mid-to-late 2010s with the rollicking single “S.O.B.”

Fortunately, the Night Sweats’ Ball Arena show has already sold out its scheduled capacity, with more tickets added to meet demand, according to a press statement (they’re still available as of press time; see below for details). That’s a huge vote of confidence in the band, but the show still must deliver musically, proving that the Night Sweats deserve to be the main event for 17,000 to 20,000 customers (depending on the stage configuration at Ball Arena, that is).

Marcus Mumford, of the platinum-selling, Grammy-winning U.K. band Mumford and Sons, will open with a solo set, along with hand-picked guitar duo Hermanos Gutiérrez.

It’s rare for someone of Mumford’s stature, in particular, to be the opening act, but he and Rateliff are old friends. They reconnected at Newport Folk Festival in July, when Rateliff surprised the audience by bringing out folk-rock icon Paul Simon for four songs during Rateliff’s own “American Tune Review” tribute to Simon.

Mumford, of course, was happy to join them.

“I went and played with him on that, and then I was doing a theater thing at Newport, so he came and played on that,” Mumford said over the phone from New York City. “It’s that spirit of collaboration I’ve always loved with him. It’s the same with T-Bone Burnett or Brandi Carlisle. … When you get to that level of friendship with someone it’s like, ‘I’m always down to (collaborate), as long as it’s you.’ ”

Mumford’s admiration of Rateliff goes back to when Mumford lived in Denver when he was 18. That’s when he caught wind of Rateliff’s indie rock outfit Born in the Flood, and he’s been an avowed fan ever since — even bringing Rateliff and the Night Sweats on the road with the ascendant Mumford and Sons.

“My housemate in Denver on Gaylord Street introduced me to Born in the Flood, and by the time I learned (Rateliff) was doing his own thing, I was doing my own thing as well,” said Mumford, who’s also playing solo shows at Aspen’s Belly Up, Dec. 14-15. “When we first met we already had that Denver connection, and I find myself spending a lot of time in Colorado these days.”

Mumford’s appearance has no doubt helped move tickets, but the show’s quality lives and dies by Rateliff and the Night Sweats. Fortunately, they’re one of the few acts in Colorado music history than can actually do it (see also OneRepublic and The Lumineers).

That’s been especially true as Rateliff and his Denver-based Americana/soul act have been tapped to support the biggest names in music — as when the Night Sweats opened for The Rolling Stones with a scorching set at Empower Field at Mile High in August 2019, or when they were scheduled to hit the road opening for Bob Dylan in 2020 (a tour that was, tragically, scuttled by the pandemic).

Their own headlining shows, and Rateliff’s solo tour for 2020’s Stax-released album “And It’s Still Alright,” were quickly hitting capacity and in many cases selling out when the pandemic hit. Rateliff himself got sick near the end of the Night Sweats’ recent tour, forcing him to skip his usual appearance at Willie Nelson, Neil Young (a Telluride resident) and John Mellencamp’s Farm Aid concert. And he was sick again with COVID in August.

“We were talking about doing an arena tour late last year, but COVID ended up being a real (problem) so the dates didn’t work out,” Rateliff said. “This is our attempt at seeing what this growth feels like. But I’m on the fence. It’s like, where do you go once you get into an arena?”

Rateliff is justified in worrying about the expectations that follow bands once they hit a certain level of fame. But his career, which crackled to life with the epic melodies and furious performances of indie rockers Born in the Flood, is more slow-burn than explosion. The affection he’s cultivated is a point of civic pride in Colorado, having been endorsed by nearly every elected official here over the past decade, and having ably represented the state at festivals and events.

Rateliff has a knack for connecting with audiences, collapsing the distance between stage and listener with off-the-cuff tales, self-effacing jokes and a loose, electric presence that keeps your eyes planted on him. In small venues, such as the 100-capacity Skylark Lounge (that he played some special shows at recently; he’s a co-owner of the Denver venue) it can feel like standing in front of an open furnace door, however agreeably.

But even on massive stages, surrounded by 10,000-plus people, the fundamentals remain. When Rateliff saw Roger Waters’ recent concert at Ball Arena, he noted the differences between a production of that scale and spectacle and, for example, seeing rapper Post Malone — who’s typically performs as a one-man show — at Madison Square Garden.

“When I saw Elton John play at Ball Arena (on Nov. 4), I kind of tried to feel out the venue and see how he used the room,” Rateliff said. “When I saw Post Malone, I really enjoyed his lighthearted antics. It gave me a sense of like, ‘OK, I feel like I can do this.’ It’s not as scary when you’re watching it happen.”

If you go

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, with Marcus Mumford, Hermanos Gutiérrez. 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 16 at Ball Arena, 1000 Chopper Circle in Denver. Tickets: $25-$129.50. Order by calling 888-929-7849 or visiting axs.com.

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