The Rural Alberta Advantage At Lee's Palace in Toronto on Thursday
As homecomings go, it was perfect. "You have no idea how happy we are to be here again," the Rural Alberta Advantage front man Nils Edenloff told the crowd at Lee's Palace Thursday, and given the volume of the response, the feeling was mutual. In the year since the RAA last played Toronto, they've become an indie-rock buzz band - so much so that Departing, their due-in-March second album, is already touted as a must-hear for 2011.
But those who haven't followed the trio's rise from obscurity may have questions, starting with: How can a group called the Rural Alberta Advantage be a Toronto band?
DO THEY SOUND RURAL?
No. Although Edenloff plays acoustic guitar and has punk-rock roots, similarities to Corb Lund pretty much end there. There's nothing country about the RAA sound, and even the punk elements - which largely boil down to Edenloff's nearly shouted vocals and rapid-fire strum - are misleading.
The core of the group's sound is drummer Paul Banwatt, whose hyperkinetic style ranges from jittery breakbeats to a sort of postmodern Gene Krupa stomp. Not only does he provide the adrenalized jolt that kicks Edenloff's vocals along, but his keen sense of texture keeps things from going too minimalist when Edenloff switches to Casio keyboard.
Amy Cole, who often augments Banwatt's thump by pounding a floor tom, similarly fleshes out Edenloff's input, either by sweetening the vocals with cool soprano harmonies, or augmenting his Casio chords with chirpy glockenspiel melodies. In all, the band's sound is about as country as Lou Reed singing Philip Glass.
ARE THEY FROM ALBERTA?
Yes. Although the band itself was born in Toronto, all three members are from central and northern Alberta. More to the point, most of the songs - particularly Edenloff's - play off those Western roots.
But despite a smattering of geographical specifics, the RAA doesn't much go in for place songs. When Edenloff sings Edmonton, he's not talking about the city so much as he is addressing the tension that exists between belonging and disconnecting, much as Arcade Fire does in The Suburbs (also not a travelogue).
In other words, the RAA is part of the great Canadian tradition of drawing from the local to express the universal. Ironically, the band's decidedly urban sound amplifies the effect, making it easier for non-rural listeners to connect to the emotions at the heart of such songs as Frank, AB, which is about a rockslide in the Rockies, or The Dethbridge in Lethbridge.
WHAT'S THEIR ADVANTAGE?
In a word, energy. As good as their songs are - and some of the new tunes, particularly Muscle Relaxant and Barnes' Yard, are ridiculously catchy - what ultimately sells their performance is their no-holds-barred intensity. From the drum-driven buildup that kick-started Luciana to their pedal-to-the-metal rip through The Deadroads, it was impossible not to be caught up in their sonic frenzy.
That's not to say their performance was flawless. Edenloff's guitars kept feeding back, which muddled the end of Muscle Relaxant and just about ruined an encore rendition of Little Drummer Boy. Moreover, the band didn't quite have the stamina to maintain its breakneck pace, and tempos wound up flagging toward the end of Tornado '87 and Drain the Blood.
Still, the potential is there, and over all, it felt like the Rural Alberta Advantage is only just beginning to build momentum. Let's see where it is this time next year.