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The Rural Alberta Advantage

(11 Jul 2009: Modified Arts — Phoenix, AZ)

People think the music industry is dying.


Say that to Nils Edenloff of the Rural Alberta Advantage and he might just laugh in your face. Albeit politely. He is Canadian after all—not that the landscape-specific, mouthful-of-a-moniker he records under wasn’t a giveaway. Back in early 2008, the Rural Albert Advantage were playing to half-empty rooms in Nowheresville, Edmonton, but just a few months later they are playing to crowded clubs thousands of miles from home. At the same time, they are celebrating their recent signing to Saddle Creek and the subsequent re-release of their ridiculously lovable 2008 debut Homelands. The rise has been nothing short of meteoric; a fact partially due to the band’s devastating performance at SXSW this past spring, but more specifically traced to a rather fortuitous piece of online promotion they received a while back, having been chosen—seemingly out of a hat—as November 2008’s feature band of the month for online music site eMusic. This exposed their charming brand of acoustic-punk to thousands of eMusic subscribers, all of whom, it seems, fell head over heels in love. The point seems to be that, as always, if you write thrilling, inclusive pop songs, they will eventually be heard—no matter what two-bit hole you claw your way out of (begging your pardon, rural Alberta).


The Rural Alberta Advantage’s first appearance in the Valley of the Sun was well attended, a fact too important to be overstated. I have seen several bands with equal to greater levels of mass exposure at the time (Titus Andronicus, Times New Viking, etc) fail in their attempts to draw here, playing unfortunate sets to single digit audiences. Sadly, most Phoenicians aren’t eager to jump on board anything really interesting until the rest of the world has already given the OK. Good bands play here all the time and will continue to, but the disinterest on the part of the general public, many of them young people, always leaves me baffled. This principle, however, does not adhere to death metal and/or hippie jam bands, neither of whom have any trouble whatsoever selling out gigs in the Valley.


My guests and I arrived minutes before the Rural Alberta Advantage took the stage and were pleased to find the room mostly full—to my eyes, a clear indication of how terrific these songs are. The band begun the set with a song neither I, nor anyone else in the room, apparently, had ever heard before. I’ve always found this to be a particularly ballsy move, especially for a group still pawning for your attention. The three of them gathered at stage center, leaned into a single mic, and, applying simple hand-percussion and soft harmony to a rudimentary guitar line, coaxed the room into a swift, rapt silence. It’s safe to say that any of lead singer/songwriter Edenloff’s songs could be delivered in this hushed manner and retain their strengths and charms—he doesn’t really need the cute girl keyboardist/backup singer, the electro-pop varnish, and the 4-armed freak-show drummer—but it’s in the embellishments where the band truly excels.


Nothing prepares you for the visual onslaught of percussionist Paul Banwatt’s live performance. He plays a modest trap kit—snare, kick, two-tom, hi-hat, and crash—further proof that those prog-rocking dinosaurs back in the ‘70s with the 57-piece monster drumkits were just stroking themselves. If you’ve really got it, you should be able to go anywhere you want on a mini 6-piece trap—and Banwatt’s got it. The evidence is in the recordings. His breakneck beats, placed highly in the mix, often steal the spotlight away from Edenloff (“Don’t Haunt This Place” and “Four Night Rider” come to mind) but to see him wreck havoc in person, in a tiny club, so close you can see the sweat flying off his head, well…


The band played nearly every track off Homelands, even some of the slower ones—though they never strayed too long from full volume. “Drain the Blood” made for plenty of awe-struck glances, as the song’s steady, chugging acoustic riff opens up into its full-blown, down-on-your-knees chorus; Edenloff’s shrieking plea, caring and desperate, barely held in key atop the fury that crashed and burrowed beneath it. This group is tight. There is not much in their set that could be mistaken for improvisation, nor would the songs allow much room for it, but there is a palpable chemistry between the three players. They waste little time.


Everything that is still great about rock music, the music industry, the way we connect to each other in the 21st century—certainly there is a lot of awfulness that permeates these areas—but everything that is still really good about all of that stuff was on display in full this evening. A cheap ticket, a cramped space packed with eager music lovers, and a grateful, exuberant band with their amps set to destroy.


The show reached a peak near the end of the set with the band’s pitch-perfect rendition of “Edmonton”, the song’s faux a cappella coda rising above Banwatt’s overbearing thump: “Run away again / From this Alberta pen / And I will never try / To forget your northern eyes.” The sentiment is sweet, simple even, but in this particular setting, its desolate longing is transformed into a rousing poetry for the ears and, yes, the hips as well.


My lasting impression of this band, of this evening, is one of reassurance and encouragement. I’m thankful to be hip enough in my mid-30s that I’m still aware of this stuff, and that music can still move me and motivate me the way it did when I was 14. More importantly, I’m hopeful for the future. It is much easier now, I think, for a young band from the middle of who-knows-where to be noticed. I think of all those kids out there still writing bad songs in their bedrooms and I want to tell them about the Rural Alberta Advantage.

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