Dispatches from the Show: The Rural Alberta Advantage / July Talk @ The Local 506, Chapel Hill, NC, 11/9/14
Recently I had the extreme pleasure of experiencing The Rural Alberta Advantage in person. I would have been happy if they never stopped playing, but they limited themselves to 21 songs. Thus, I’ve decided to ratchet my endless thoughts on the show down to 21.
- “Stamp” is probably the RAA’s most rural, most advantageous, Alberta-est song, so of course they opened with it. When you grow to love a band over time and from afar, you watch their live YouTube videos and dream about what it would be like to see them in person, inevitably building up expectations to the point that you start to worry they can’t be met. What if they’re a great studio band and only so-so live? It’s a long tour; what if you catch them on a bad night? What if they’re good, but it’s no fun because they’re jerks and full of themselves? Watching the band play “Stamp” from a few feet away, my fears were quickly dashed. If anything, I felt like Jeff Goldblum sitting in that Jurassic Park jeep, eyes wide, heart pounding: You did it. You crazy son of a bitch, you did it.
- I don’t know any other RAA fans, I don’t live near any radio stations that would play the RAA (also, what’s a radio station?), and I’ve never been to an RAA show before. In other words, while I’ve grown to like certain songs more than others from countless album listens, I had no idea what songs to expect them to play that night. I was thrilled “Muscle Relaxants” ended up being one of them. It’s pure, bouncy, drummy joy.
- To see the RAA, I traveled down to Chapel Hill, NC, with my wife and met up with a good friend of mine from college who lives in the area. The half-dozen booths surrounding the back of the floor at Local 506 filled up quickly, and it was actually my wife who suggested we get up against the stage while there was still room. I’d never done that before, and nervously obliged, my social anxiety bested by my excitement for the band. This turned out to be a great decision for two reasons: 1) I am not a person who dances like no one is watching, so not being able to see any other fans in front of me helped me more easily pretend that, in fact, no one was watching. 2) The RAA is a great musician-watching band. I love seeing live music partly because it’s so fascinating to watch the musicians at work, and at this show I had a clear line of vision to see Paul Banwatt destroy his drums all night long.
- I imagine that every band, before starting a tour in support of a new album, must have the same discussion about whether to open with a song from the new album or not. In this case the RAA didn’t tap the new material until the fourth song, and it seemed just right. It’s still too early to give my fully-formed opinion on Mended With Gold (just kidding; I’ve never fully formed an opinion in my life), but I think it could be their best yet. I’m completely in love with many of their songs from their first two albums, but this one feels fuller and more developed throughout.
- The show opened with July Talk. I had never heard of them until I got tickets to the show. July Talk’s YouTube videos blew me away, and I quickly purchased their Guns + Ammunition EP on iTunes and fell in love with the music. As the concert approached, I read tales of their exploits on the first part of the tour, and grew even more excited. Whereas my fondness for the RAA had built steadily over time, album by album, my excitement for seeing July Talk flared up quickly. Unfortunately, it was snuffed out as quickly in the actuality of seeing them live. They were very good (the guitarist especially killed it), but the antics and energy seemed to fall short of the actual energy in the music. I blame a big part of it on the venue. Between sound issues (I’m pretty sure we weren’t hearing Leah Faye’s vocals at the proper level) and a cramped stage (for five musicians with two extremely active vocalists), I don’t think we were seeing the band at its best. I saw in the first part of their tour documentary that they played at First Avenue early in the tour, a venue I frequented in my punk fandom heyday, and that seems like the perfect place for a band like July Talk — big enough for them to fully do their thing on stage, still intimate enough to engage the crowd. I’m going to keep my eye on them, but that night’s performance fell short of my (perhaps overblown) expectations.
- As you may know, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about “Tornado ‘87”. As you may imagine, seeing the song performed live was overwhelming. Thumbs up.
- Fun fact: The RAA released Mended With Gold, which features the song “Vulcan, AB”, very shortly after I started watching Star Trek for the first time ever. Fun fact #2: Nils uses a telephone receiver connected to speaker wire to reproduce the vocals at the beginning of the song.
- If I actually peed my pants when extremely excited, I would have soaked my jeans when they played “Luciana.” They played every song I could have hoped they’d play. The drums in this song are incredible. Let’s move on. I drank too much water before writing this piece.
- It’s going to seem like I’m talking a lot about the drums, but that’s only because I am. One of the fun things about seeing a band live is seeing how some sounds you’ve heard on the recordings are actually made. The RAA is a great band for this, because of the creative ways Nils uses an acoustic guitar, and Amy’s big bag of keyboard/organ/percussion tricks. But Paul’s drumming is the show-stealer for me, and “On the Rocks” was a great example. There’s an awesome effect he creates in this song that I got to see firsthand: He closes the high-hat just slightly and hits it in a way that causes the two cymbals to roll around on each other. It creates a sound slightly reminiscent of when a metal lid is dropped and rolls around for a bit before settling (you know, like this), but more controlled and consistent. I haven’t been able to find a live video showing this (so it’s also possible my memory is all wrong), but you can listen to the album version here (the effect starts at 1:03).
- 21 songs, in case you were wondering, is a whopping 58.33% of the songs in their released catalog. Speaking of geeky facts and awkward segues, it seemed pretty evident to me that Nils, Amy, and Paul are big-time nerds. My wife came away from the concert understanding much better why I seem so fervently connected to the band.
- It’s not just because I’m from Minnesota, because, for the last time, people, Minnesota is not Canada.
- The backstory of “To Be Scared” was funny when told by Nils. You should have been there.
- (Okay, maybe Minnesota is Canada.) “Terrified” was as terrific as expected.
- For me, a really good concert becomes a great concert when you move from a conscious, real-time analysis (“This concert is great; they’re really nailing it tonight; I’m so happy I got to see them live.”) to a transcendent experience. The other definition of “concert,” in fact (pushing my glasses up my nose), is “agreement, accordance, or harmony.” It’s a truly great concert when you reach a sort of harmony with the band — when you forget that you’re just a human standing there listening to other humans playing instruments, and just hear and feel the music.
- That’s what happened at this show for me, in case that wasn’t clear.
- “Frank, AB” is a song about a landslide that buried a town and it’s beautiful and terrible and sad and awesome and I’m not going to say anything else about it.
- Here’s what I will say. “Drain the Blood” is the best song that uses petrified wood as a metaphor that I’ve ever heard.
- There is no backstage at Local 506. The door behind the stage appears to empty out to an alley or street. So when the RAA’s set started, the band had to walk through the crowd to get to the stage (and then endure some sound issues with great nerdly aplomb). When the set was over, the band had to get off of the stage and stand awkwardly next to it while waiting for the appropriate amount of applause from the crowd to come back up for an encore.
- The encore was amazing, of course. Nils played “Two Lovers” unaccompanied, then the rest of the band slowly joined him for “The Build,” a cleverly arranged piece that’s been an early favorite of my mine from the new album.
- I would have cried despondently had they not played “Dethbridge in Lethbridge,” the first song of theirs I ever heard and still a favorite. Thankfully, we were all saved from that embarrassment.
- Much to my delight, and especially my wife’s, they played “Good Night” out in the middle of the crowd, as we had seen them do on a few YouTube videos. The set list just has a “?” in that spot, so I’ve decided to feel special that our crowd was worthy of it. Speaking of the set list, I hung around the stage long enough to get a copy from Amy Cole after the show. In the moment, I was exploding with excitement, still riding a wave of euphoria from the show. Five minutes later while walking back to the car, I started to wonder what I was actually going to do with this slip of paper. I still don’t know. (One thing I did do was make an iTunes playlist to match.) I don’t know if I will ever see the RAA again, either. The risk of a letdown after this perfect show seems too high. Then again, if they keep playing small venues like this (which, unlike for July Talk, seems perfect for them), it will be damn hard to resist.