Last Night: The Rural Alberta Advantage at Bottom of the Hill

Categories: Last Night
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The Rural Alberta Advantage, The Shaky Hands, Sonny & The Sunsets
Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009
Bottom of the Hill

Better than: living through a prairie winter without them.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Rural Alberta Advantage is now cool. This is a new reality, one to which it seems most everyone--including the band members themselves--is still adjusting.

Yes, the indie-folk trio sold out Bottom of the Hill last night on a wintry Wednesday. Whatever. A better measure of their success was what happened during the climax of "Frank, AB," a story about love transcending a real-life mining accident in a small Alberta town that came only five songs into the set.

When the acoustic guitar, keyboards, and drums fell away, leaving the neatly intertwining voices of singer/guitarist Nils Edenloff and multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole to ring throughout the room, the crowd intoned the words louder than the band members. It was only the first of several times that that would happen. When the song was over, the audience erupted in cheers. The band grinned. Yet all this enthusiasm seemed to catch Edenloff by surprise. "We never had any idea when we were coming up with that song that we'd have 300 people singing along," he told the crowd afterward.

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He seemed to mean that. Which is weird, because "Frank, AB," like so many of the RAA's songs, seems custom built as a sing-along painkiller for the weary rhythms of real-life love and loss and death and triumph, whether lived on the Canadian prairie or not.

Sounding like a less-whiny Bright Eyes or a more grounded Neutral Milk Hotel, the RAA tackle thorny, familiar subjects--breakups, the deaths of family members, and the yearning to understand one's place in history and ancestry. Yet the band's fast-paced, lean aesthetic renders these dim topics in a wistful, seemingly hopeful light--led by Edenloff's nasal whine--that is immediately accessible and appealing.

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Much of the positive energy in the group's sound emerges from the drumming of Paul Banwatt, who more than earned his place at the front of the stage. His blazing-fast, bone-dry beats infuse songs with a frenetic insistence that is captivating to both hear and watch. The RAA's music at times threatened to speed off into oblivion--or insanity--and either of those ends felt just fine, as long as the song didn't stop.

If the RAA has a major weakness, it's that the band only does one thing: sincere, simple, eloquent music about real life in real places--the kinds of songs that are hard to write well while living in the bubble of even submajor musical success. Apparently the members still have day jobs (Edenloff is a computer engineer), but the Rural Alberta Advantage can now count, um, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, along with plenty of San Franciscans, among its fans.

We'll see if the group can retain its delicate touch for rendering
reality now that it's officially cool. And yes, we hope it works out.

Critic's Notebook

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Sonny & the Sunsets
I arrived during the tail end of Sonny & the Sunsets and immediately scolded myself for not getting there sooner. Their sound straddles the fine line between old southern country and old southern blues, but Sonny's lyrics tell lucid stories that feel twisted in a particularly modern way. The band was killing it onstage last night, but for some reason seemed to be getting a mixed reception from the crowd (some members of which it seemed couldn't be bothered to watch anyone but the RAA.)

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The Shaky Hands
Sonny's weirdo blues and infectious enthusiasm made tough going for Portlanders The Shaky Hands, whose members were playing their last show of a 10-week tour. One would think that the end of a tour would be cause for a raucous good time, but the guys sounded seriously tired and even bored of their own songs, most of which came across like warmed over Black Crowes. At one point, the bass player told the crowd that they were glad to be here in San Francisco... because it meant they were finally going home. He said it like he was joking, but obviously, he wasn't.
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