Rural Alberta Advantage
San Francisco, CA
After the second opener, I stepped outside of The Independent with enough distance from the door to safely smoke a spliff without giving authority a whiff. As I finished up, a red-haired man in denim stepped out a side door and gave me a nod, inviting conversation, and I simply nodded back and returned inside. Ten minutes later, when Rural Alberta Advantage took the stage, I regretted my faulty recognition skills, as the very same man – Nils Edenloff – took the microphone and led the band straight into “Stamp,” a galloping getaway that mines a desperate call for freedom from an act as mundane as putting a letter in the mail. Not that I was prepared to ask Edenloff how he elevated such ordinary activity into anthemic confessionals, or about anything else really, but it would have been nice to share some words with someone that I already felt knew me so well.
Shortly after the release of their first record, Hometowns , I caught them in the back room of a forgotten venue east of Hollywood, and their propulsive live performance hooked me right from the start. With a fiercely emoting anchor in the middle (Edenloff), a comforting counterpart singing back-up and playing keys (Amy Cole), and a relentless wrecking ball of a drummer (Paul Banwatt), they transformed a cramped, modest room into a sweat-drenched rock and roll cathedral. For their second record, Departing , the band threw a coat of polish onto their ramshackle indie rock, to the benefit of the production quality and the detriment of their energy. The lo-fi production of their debut better captured the spirit of their live set, although their graceful hooks were better rendered with the clean, lush palette employed on Departing.
Three years later, they’ve returned with Mended With Gold, a record that manages to split the difference in approach. Standout tracks like “Terrified,” “The Build,” and “Vulcan AB” contain both the primal power featured in their live set as well as the studio lessons learned on Departing, enabling Edenloff to convincingly and powerfully emote while increasingly intricate instrumentation swells and swoons behind. The collection may not have the same urgency as Hometowns, but it features some of their strongest songwriting to date and subtly advances the band’s sound while remaining true to their defining sonic traits.
In addition to lending the band a trackable narrative, the consistency of their catalog makes their performance feel like a cohesive piece rather than a random tracklist. Pulling in nearly equal measures from all three albums, the band deftly maintained their signature sound while varying it up enough to maintain our interest. It also helps that all three members are engaging performers; Edenloff cries and croons in the middle, Cole provides the offsetting soft touch and lush harmonies, and Banwatt pounds the drums like they owe him money. Everyone took their respective turns up front and my focus consistently wandered, but I found myself set on Banwatt’s percussion more often than not.
While he clearly has the instrumental ability to play showy stadium solos and cram flashy lines into standard rock songs, the drummer restrains himself to what’s needed for the part. Whether it’s a subtle skew of a classic backbeat, lurking thunder behind a quiet vocal storm, or a roaring fill that sends a chorus skyward, his drum work routinely elevates simpler arrangements into rattling majesty. On record, it can be easy to take those rhythms for granted; on stage, Paul Banwatt’s propulsive energy dominates without detracting from the other players.
I could choose from any number of highlights to further illustrate the effect, but for rhetoric’s sake, let’s say it was “Terrified.” After a few bars of quiet guitars and pleading vocals, Banwatt rolled in with a galloping rhythm that sent the song widescreen. The real power came in the chorus, when his bandmates teamed up for an ascending shout to the heavens, revving the song into second gear before returning right back to the gallop. As Edenloff sings of a lover’s violent and self-pitying spirit clashing with expectation, Cole shadows his vocals for a bit before turning off and issuing a haunting, aching coo, with Banwatt gradually building up behind. When he finally went off for a stretch and simply shredded the drums, the room burst at the seams. One more round of group coos, and they faded out to a roaring wave of applause.
Throughout the evening, the crowd reacted favorably, almost to the point of distraction. While the massive applauses, encouraging shouts, and general attentiveness were all appreciated, the audience participation was often over-eager, layering claps and stomps atop songs that needed no such decoration. It was refreshing to see successfully led sing-alongs, even a few organically grown accompaniments undertaken without the band’s prompting, but when you’re trying to force a fierce clap into an a cappella lullaby, you’ve gone too far.
For their part, the band remained charming as ever, doling out good tidings to the Giants’ World Series hopes (the crowd response: “Don’t jinx us”); explaining away their absence from San Francisco (“We’re sorry we neglected you”); reminding us of the official rock of Alberta (petrified wood), and encouraging us to grab someone close, before a particularly tender number (“Two Lovers”). Intimate and approachable the entire evening, the trio went literal for the last song of the encore, descending down into the audience and performing “Good Night” in a carved out circle in the middle of their room, as the crowd swayed in awe on all sides.
Through their heartfelt lyrics, stirring anthems, and sincere performance, Rural Alberta Advantage strike a genuine connection with their audience, on record and especially at their shows. Three records into their career, and they’ve already established themselves as pre-eminent emoters with enough steak and sizzle to avoid overworked melodrama.