On Friday night the RAA performed for a sold-out hometown crowd at Lee's Palace. It was a great show; I'll get to that. First, some background.
I've been following the Rural Alberta Advantage since the summer of '07, and first saw them perform back in May 2006 (with, apparently, Friday Morning's Regret, AKA the Wooden Sky, though I can't remember). About a year ago, I included the RAA in my personal list of the hottest Canadian bands of 2008. Listing them at no. 7, I noted that they'd gone on an east-coast tour, played to a capacity crowd during NxNE, and that their album had been
getting rave reviews from critics and regular folk across the continent. . . . Hampered in part by the success of Woodhands---drummer Paul Banwatt plays in both---the band has had to turn down show offers (to open for the Dodos, for one) and hasn't been able to tour as extensively as it otherwise might have. And yet. All this underground pressure must lead somewhere, and heck it has to be soon. I predict some lucky label will snatch up the RAA in late 2008 or early 2009, re-release Hometowns, and we'll see the band take itself out west and beyond.(They made it to no. 19 on the actual hottest list.) A month later they opened for Ohbijou and the Acorn at Lee's Palace. I remember thinking that this was a pretty big deal for them, and the band thought so too. They were really excited to be playing that night. As part of my review, I commented, "here's to hoping for bigger things for this band soon!"
Well. I wasn't quite right about the details, but that's because I could never have imagined what actually did happen very shortly after I published my "hottest" list on 27 October. The story's been told well here, but the short version is that the good reviews got the word out a bit and in November their self-released disc, Hometowns, was named eMusic's album of the month. Soon enough bloggers all over the US (primarily) were writing about the album, giving it more rave reviews. I read a whole bunch of these, and got a huge kick when some random young woman in Ohio or wherever wrote that the RAA was her new favourite band. ("Hey!," I'd think, "that's my band!") Fast-forward to March, where at SxSW, thanks to eMusic, the RAA opened for Grizzly Bear in a church, to---you guessed it---rave reviews. Thrilling! Soon they were signed to Saddle Creek.
After that Paul Banwatt, Amy Cole, and Nils Edenloff started touring in the US---they'd played a couple NYC shows in early 2009 already---and then did make it out to western Canada and back. They've been on the road pretty steadily since then, and, if I'm not mistaken, have also been recording some new songs for their next album. Their 30 July CD release show at the Horseshoe was sold out (crazy, at $12-$15 dollars a ticket). Friday's Lee's Palace gig, their first in Toronto since then, was priced at $15 in advance, or $18 at the door, but tickets were long gone days before. The RAA is getting to be out of my price-range. How wonderful.
And Friday's show was indeed wonderful.
Fox Jaws opened things up. This Barrie band, producers of finely-crafted indie rock, are always good, but Friday they were on top of their game. They sounded fantastic, and though I'm still not convinced guitarist Dan Allen should take over lead vocals from Carleigh Aikins on occasion, I was impressed. I'm starting to see what Bob sees in them, and though I think they are a little too rock for me, they looked right on that stage. One song fell a little flat---something about phone calls---but otherwise, great stuff.
Next up, the man responsible for one of my favourite albums of the year, Bahamas. I saw him---Afie Jurvanen---back in August (playing with the Weakerthans' drummer), and then again all by his lonesome when he opened for Amy Millan at the Mod Club. I really enjoyed both sets, but the Mod Club performance was something special. His banter was spot-on, really adding to his songs, and the heavily female crowd was pretty near silent. So I was looking forward to seeing him again, this time with his regular drummer.
Once they got on stage, they proceeded to sound-check---must'a not had a chance before---and that's fine, but it wasn't the best sign. Sound problems marked his set, but mostly sound problems the audience couldn't detect. Jurvanen got some laughs later by covering the song he said he could hear being played upstairs in the Dance Cave. The character I'd seen at the Mod Club was there in force, and I'm not sure I really like the extra attitude. All the talking between songs distracted somewhat from the music, and didn't end up having the hoped-for effect: to shush the audience. There were some good moments, including a song I'd never heard before, and a cover of Prince's "Purple Rain" to end things on a definite high note.* And he played some of my favourites off Pink Strat. I was happy, but not ecstatic.
Bahamas was less than magical, but the RAA really rose to the occasion. They came on stage to cheers from the audience, and the band members' grins gave away their delight. It had been quite a year, and though I suspect most people in the audience had no idea of just far the band has come, this did nothing to diminish the moment. Throughout the set I could hear people singing the words to songs they knew, and anticipating when it was time to clap along, or even when it was time to go "woo ooo" during "The Dethbridge in Lethbridge."
The set was heavy with songs off Hometowns, but we were treated to a few new songs, including one song I had never heard before. One of them, about life on the road, featured pounding beats. A real folk-dance number, it was awesome. Another, presumably titled "North Star," I've heard a few times, and it too I quite like. The one I'd never heard before started with an organ solo, and soon enough Banwatt came in with another pounding, primal drum beat. The chorus had Edenloff practically screaming. Brilliant. (Every time I see this band I'm struck by how amazing Banwatt is. Why do I always forget?) During the encore they played "Barnes' Yard," yet another new one. I'm looking forward to a new RAA record. Should be a stunner.
I've seen the RAA more than 15 times now, in a few different settings, and I always liked them. But, like I wrote about their July show, touring has made a difference. Not just in their stage set-up, which has Banwatt in-line with Cole and Edenloff, and not just in banter, which is much better, but in performance, too. They fill the stages they are playing with their presence and sound---Edenloff especially---and know how to perform to fans both new (mostly) and old (like me). Although I was most excited about hearing newer stuff, I was still thrilled with the ones I've been hearing live for years. And I still love their record. I'm listening to it right now.
Download: The RAA, "Don't Haunt this Place" (Hometowns, 2009).
Download: The RAA, "Frank, AB" (Hometowns, 2009).
Download: The RAA, "Barnes' Yard" (Daytrotter Session, 2009).
Great show. Oh, and that hottest Canadian bands list I referred to above? The RAA topped it in 2009. Of course.
Photo credit: I took the ones of each band member on Friday night from Chromewaves. Frank Yang has great photos of all the performers.
* I think I was the only person in the audience not to know this song. Everyone else was singing along.