Falling in love with The Rural Alberta Advantage

I wish I had had the Vera Project when I was in high school, growing up in Oklahoma. I surely would have developed good musical taste and consequently used it to my advantage to rise above the “perfectly average” persona I had diligently built for myself. Actually, it probably wouldn’t have done any good. I just wasn’t ready to form my own opinions about anything back then. And now — well, just go ahead and try to shut me up.

What a great thing kids in Seattle have. Too bad only a handful of them even know about it. The Vera is a safe haven, where mom and dad can drop you off without fear of you damaging anything but your hearing. And you get to see some great touring acts play in a venue that doesn’t cordon you off in a corner (or keep you out completely). So cool.

And so, during the opening bands, this is where I found myself: distinctly “that guy,” the one I used to see at shows and say to myself, “who’s dad is that?”; in a venue where clearly the only people older than me are indeed somebody’s dad (or even granddad), enjoying their son’s band; standing in a large group of kids who are literally less than half my age; thoroughly enjoying the opening bands I’d never heard before; generally having a blast.

Eastern Washington’s Yarnowl got things started off in the right direction, with a set of original music that hinted at a love of the headliner, as well as other similar acts like Page France and Noah and the Whale.

Blunt Mechanic were the middle act, and while they are clearly influenced by a lot of Northwest indie rockers, the band is doing a good job of creating a space all their own. Led by Ben Barnett, the Music Director of the Paul Green School of Rock, and mastermind behind the now defunct Kind of Like Spitting, Blunt Mechanic has a lot going for it but also has a lot to prove. This was their first show together, and while it was a little rough around the edges, they really did rise to the occasion. The highlight of their set was when a student of Barnett’s named Dylan, clearly still in or just out of high school, came on stage to play rhythm guitar and keys. He looked like a natural, flicking the long, scraggly hair out of his eyes while playing like a seasoned pro.

As Blunt Mechanic and the gaggle of younger kids filed out of the space at the end of their set, the Vera started to fill up with the usual Seattle show crowd, and I started to feel a lot less “old.” I did have tinges of oldness, though, when noting things to myself like: they don’t serve alcohol here, and this crowd is more mellow and jovial than a crowd that had been drinking since dinner time would be. This is a good thing. (OLD!) This space isn’t packed with people, and I have room to stand and watch without being bothered by anyone. (OLD!) The headlining act is going on stage at 10:40pm — on a Saturday night — and I’ll be home by midnight. (OLD!) But all those thoughts melted away when the Rural Alberta Advantage came on stage.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this compelled to shout from the heavens “YOU MUST HEAR THIS BAND!” Noting near the beginning of the set that this was their final show of the year (nigh, decade) and they were going to be off for 3 weeks, Nils Edelmann, the lead singer, guitarist, and seemingly all-around nice guy, declared that he was going to go all out at this show. His singing style has got to be hard on his vocal chords, and after playing 100 shows this year he felt he was sounding a little hoarse (but I can’t say I heard it myself). But “all out” is exactly where he took the band, pushing his voice to the limit at more than one point during the hour-long set, evoking emotional highs similar to that of Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum.

Playing all but one song from their debut, Hometowns, a handful of new songs and a cover (of the theme song from the 70s/80s Canadian TV show “The Littlest Hobo”), it’s difficult for me to pick one highlight from the show. A pleasant surprise throughout was the insanely extreme drumming. It was truly one of the most inspired, original and exciting drumming performances I’ve ever witnessed. Seriously. Benjamin Weikel from Helio Sequence, John Stanier from Helmet and Battles, and now Paul Banwatt from the Rural Alberta Advantage. You’ve got to see it to believe it — listening to Hometowns, you get a small sense of it on “Don’t Haunt This Place,” but what I didn’t catch until seeing the live show is that that same intelligent, fast-paced drumming is prevalent across the entire album. Pay attention to the drums the next time you listen to the album all the way through (you can hear the album in its entirety on this CBC Radio site).

Not to be overlooked, Amy Cole, the band’s xylophone, tambourine, maracas, keyboards and percussion expert, created beautiful harmonies to match Edelmann’s strained leads, and played fantastic beats to complement what Banwatt was doing on the drumkit. She rounded out the melodies with her myriad of talents, filling in with keyboards what was originally recorded as a cello in the studio. If I had to pick a single, solitary disappointment, it would be that there was no cellist touring with the band. The strings on the album are well-placed and surprising, and would be a welcome addition to the live performance.

After playing their full set and coming back on stage to finish with one new song and two favorites, the band did something surprisingly fresh. As they were finishing their “final song,” Hometown’s “The Dethbridge in Lethbridge,” the band picked up their instruments and walked off the front of the stage and into the center of the audience. They announced that they had one more song, and it’s a special treat for them that they try to perform from time to time. They decided to share the song with us because we’d “been so attentive and into the music” — to which someone shouted “Because this place doesn’t serve alcohol!” And indeed, they weren’t able to play this song the night before in Portland because the audience was so rowdy. So they performed their “goodnight song,” completely unmiked and in the round in the middle of the venue floor. It was the perfectly intimate end to a perfect set. It made the small audience at the Vera feel special.

Doing their part to ensure the “all Canadians are really nice people” stereotype, the band came out into the lobby after completing their set to talk with the fans, shake hands and accept the gratitude heaped upon them. And I was right there with everyone else, saying “nice set!” and “great show!” like a dumbfounded idiot. But I didn’t care. The band had taken me to a place I’d forgotten existed. And now I find myself counting the days until their next visit so I can get back there again.

(Confidential to the band: please come back to Seattle after your date in Vancouver in February 2010!)

(Originally posted at Click & Dagger.)