Rural Alberta Advantage @ The Rock & Roll Hotel

I had to walk quickly down the street, pounding my feet on the sidewalks and jay-walking whenever I could. I was walking because I’d missed the H Street cable car and I was going to be late for Rural Alberta Advantage at the Rock and Roll Hotel, and while I ended my trip sweaty and hot I would advise any RAA fan to do the same. RAA never quite made sense to me until that evening when I matched my footsteps with the drums in my headphones and raced to beat the clock in a thick coat under the grungy neon signs of H Street.

When I got to the concert, my calves were sore and the heat under my shirt was leaking up my neck uncomfortably. The girl behind the glass was like most behind-the-glass-people at concerts, blunt and demanding. I asked her if they had tickets left. “We’ve got plenty,” she said.  I panted out my request for a ticket and she rolled a big wet stamp across my hand like I was a package or a meat product. I thanked her and stepped inside.

The bar is like any other, dark interior, stage opposite the door, a crowd milling by the stage. The room feels like something dignified, maybe a nice old restaurant, which they had painted black and dismembered a bit for a “screw the bourgeois” effect. I didn’t have to fight for a spot near the stage; there weren’t many people there. Yukon Blonde, the openers, were finishing their set when I walked in, and front-man Jeff Innes’s long curls were swinging to the beat as he squeezed out the last of a passionate performance. He may have been the only person in that bar sweatier than I was and he’d earned it.

When RAA finally took the stage, lead singer Nils Edenloff took no time introducing himself or the band: he uttered a few remarks and almost immediately set into the opening song. Seeing Edenloff in person for the first time is like discovering how they make marshmallows. What had been for so long a miraculous disembodied voice became reified in human form, and while that human form wasn’t exactly what I expected, it made sense. It was satisfying. Edenloff looks a bit like a high school physics teacher who gets high with his students, or maybe a trailer-park Chris Martin – sharp blue eyes, a few crazed wisps of hair on his balding head, and a capacity for Martin’s brand of mysterious nostalgia plus RAA’s injection of howling angst. It feels strange to compare RAA with Coldplay, but they trade in the same goods: obscure musical angst and a longing for an obscurely defined sense of home.

The set kicks off and almost immediately Edenloff’s vocals start to crack, his throat bulges and labors, and some of his higher notes reduce to whispers. “Oh my God,” I think, “he’s losing his voice.” He takes more and more sips from a thermos of tea on the stage. He makes a small reference to his vocal chords midway through the set, calling them “road-weary.” With each new verse he backs away from the microphone, gathers himself like an pouncing animal, and then returns to wail out the next few lines with his forehead slick and veins jumping in his neck. It hurts to hear one of my favorite vocalists in indie rock tear apart his own voice. Generally, Edenloff is a master in conveying the spirit of his northern roots and delivering powerful statements of wonder and loss through a unique timbre in his vocals.

With each new note, however, his voice slips a little further into damage. Edenloff bashes through most of his beginning songs like waves on a bluff, thrusting himself full-force onto the immovable obstacle of his threadbare vocal chords with rhythm and relentless effort, as if each new verse would somehow be different. He tries to perform the show like any other, and punishes his voice for it.

To his left, however, Paul Banwatt is sharing smiles with audience members and beating the drums like carrots under a chef’s knife. Banwatt minces through tight rhythms like a computer, quick and unwavering.  I must admit I assumed a lot of RAA’s beats were digitally crafted until I saw Banwatt smack them out in real life. Hearing the beat to “On The Rocks” live is a bizarre experience, and the song embodies a different mood in its organic form, more personal and intimate. Banwatt jumps in on each song without much a hesitation – Edenloff keeps the train moving at a quick pace, rarely pausing for longer than a few seconds between songs.

To Edenloff’s right is keyboardist and background vocalist Amy Cole, who laconically feeds Edenloff advice on his pitch and stands with one one leg straight and one cocked, hands slowly pressing out chord progressions on the keyboard.

About halfway through the set, Edenloff takes a break to give context for his next piece. He’s tired from singing “Stamp,” which mounted the greatest challenge to his ailing throat so far. Edenloff starts with a bit of background, describing the wildfires which tore through Alberta last year, scorching parts of Fort McMurray, a town where Edenloff spent his high school years. His next song, “Beacon Hill,” is named for one such neighborhood whose buildings and parks vanished after the blaze, reduced to a smear of ash. Edenloff lives in Toronto, and says he never expected to return to Fort McMurray, but the option of going home always gave him solace throughout his artistic career. “Now,” he says, “that option is gone.”

And then, on the bitter coat tails of that last remark, Edenloff leans into “Beacon Hill” and delivers in it the same galloping sense of northern-plains anguish I come to feel through the rest of the show. RAA recently released a new album, The Wild, which punches the listener with a more folky sound, and that folky sound comes through clear in the songs which follow.

Now Edenloff starts to take more time to explain each song. He begins to dive a little deeper into his background in Alberta and interact more with the audience. After each song he quickly leans to the microphone and says “thank you” before taking a drink of water. He starts to lay off his voice a bit when he sings, too.

By the time Edenloff reaches “Frank AB,” the audience is singing with him, and at one point he leaves the microphone, leaning out towards the audience with an expecting ear as we sing his lyrics back to him. Songs like “White Lights” and “Alright” start to draw me into a bit of a pensive state and I notice myself moving more consistently with the music. At the end of the set the band pulls out “Terrified,” my favorite song, and at that moment the tragedy of Edenloff’s lost voice seems more a piece of the RAA experience than any. I sing along with him.

The band delivers an encore, and Edenloff tells another detail from his past. When he broke off from home life, Edenloff moved from the Alberta Rockies to the city of Toronto. He threw his duffle in a friend’s car and drove to his apartment building where he ran inside to get the new key for his flat. When he returned, the windows were smashed and the duffle was gone, along with his contact lenses, clothes, and toiletries. “That’s Toronto,” says a woman behind me, and then Edenloff jumps into “Drain the Blood” and I can feel the lines of his past running a little truer with my own migration from the Colorado Rockies to the East Coast.

The band finishes up with “Deathbridge,” and when he’s done playing, Edenloff smiles for the first time all night, for just a second, and goes backstage. I buy a tee-shirt and chat with the Yukon Blonde guys for a bit – they’re from British Columbia, not Yukon Territory.

Eventually, with the tee shirt looped under my belt and my jacket unzipped, I plug in my headphones and slowly walk back down H Street to the Union Station Metro stop.


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