Spring is in full effect in Denver today. I am looking out my window at the kids on their bikes as the sun sets over the Rockies. The scene is quite different from the wet gloom that was 4/20. Yesterday was a shitty day overall and even though I had purchased an advance ticket for The Rural Alberta Advantage at Hi-Dive, I seriously considered staying in. Getting caught up on Game of Thrones sounded much better than dragging my lazy ass down to that cramped little venue on South Broadway. But this show came highly recommended by a friend who caught their pre-Coachella set at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco and he assured me I would not regret it.
Hi-Dive is my least favorite venue in Denver. The bartenders, clientele and doormen are cool. The drinks are strong (most nights) and reasonably priced. The South Broadway location is far superior to the Colfax venues and they get great bands to play an intimate setting. But the layout of that venue is just ridiculous. The wall separating the bar from the stage area cuts off all access and sound to the rest of the room, and unless you burrow yourself into the claustrophobic closet they call the main room, you can’t hear or see shit. This is why I skip a lot of good bands that come through town. I just can’t do Hi-Dive very often. Last night was no different on this account and when I walked in the door at around 9:30pm I almost immediately regretted my decision to leave the comfort of my own home.
The first Newcastle made things a little better and I was able to squeeze my way into the main room to catch the last 10 minutes of local tribal folksters Jay J Matott & the Arctic. I didn’t see enough to form an actual opinion of these guys, but I will say Jay J Matott has some pipes and he showed them off during the (maybe too) long closing of their final song ‘I can’t go back there!!!!!!‘. I do think this band would benefit from a full drum kit. The one drum sound is cool for awhile, but like The Dodos sound, it gets old quick. I would also recommend losing the MGMT glow-in-the-dark warpaint, even though I realize that is probably part of the appeal to some.
The next band up was Lord Huron and like most bands on this bill, I didn’t know much about them. In fact, I really thought it was a solo project until the members starting hauling their equipment through the crowd to the small stage. I was looking forward to catching this set even though they were described as ‘vampire weekend without the catchy pop hooks‘ by my friend who recommended the show. This was quite a different picture than I had in my head based on the few tracks I had heard. I was looking forward to disagreeing with the critique from San Francisco and during the first song I actually thought he must have been talking about a different band. The 5-piece on stage were more like Vampire Weekend meets My Morning Jacket; a grown up Vampire Weekend. This was not a solo project from some basement songwriter, this was a full fledged band, a rock band with a worldly flavor. Now this band was worth getting out of the house and immersing myself into this packed little room for. I was really looking forward to recommending this band. But then the second song came and everything changed. The afro-beat that makes us all jump to the Vampire Weekend conclusion had now become something tropical…’boat drinks’ is all that kept going through my mind. I was still looking at the same band that was there minutes ago, but something had changed. I could still appreciate the vocal, but the Fleet Foxes on a Carnival Cruise sound just pierced a nerve in my brain and the venue started to seem smaller and smaller and my head started to ache. At any moment I expected Bobby Mcfarland to join the Michigan crew on stage for a rendition of Don’t Worry, Be Happy. My friend said they were good, but then went all ‘hippie’…I think they were good and then went all ‘Parrothead’. The fake water loop in the background did not help their cause…’the boat turned into the sun‘ and I turned to the bar.
Lorn Huron‘s set lasted about a half hour and it took us through a history of influences. The fourth song was very Paul Simon. The tropical stuff continued with one notable break during a new song. This song was harmonized with the drummer and reminded me a little of Ryan Adams on his country kick. It was times like this that I really, really liked this band. But it seems to me they are pretty well invested into their ‘world’ music element and I’m just not feeling that. There were others that were feeling it though and the crowd did flock to the merch booth after their set to pick up the vinyl. It’s always great to see a relatively unknown band create new fans in a live setting and I wish them nothing but the best even if I’m not a huge fan.
The Rural Alberta Advantage, a trio from, well, rural Alberta, took the stage at 11:15pm with Luciana from their 2009 debut album. It’s funny how close Hometowns came to making my ‘best of’ list that year and how quickly I forgot about this band. In reality, I know surprisely little about them. They write songs about living in rural Canada; songs about family, growing up, love found and love lost. They write very clever pop/rock songs about life that easily translate to whatever country you grew up in. They are signed to Conor Oberst‘s Saddle Creek label, who put out their latest album, Departing, in March of this year. An album that I had in my itunes but had yet to spend much time with.
Last night I learned a little more about this underrated band that is now based in Toronto. I learned they are a trio made up of Nils Edenloff on vocal and guitar (and sometimes keyboard), the awkwardly beautiful Amy Cole on keyboard and backing vocals and Paul Banwatt on drums. All members of the band setup front and center, so you get to know them all a little better, especially in a small venue like Hi-Dive. In my mind I had Nils pegged as a Canadian Conor, what I got (at least in the dull red lights) was a Woody Harrelson look-alike. Amy likes to sing and dance and clap along with the audience and seems sincerely enthralled with the music her counterparts are making…gazing at Nils with the admiration of a serious fan. Paul’s personality didn’t come through quite as much as he was too busy punishing his drum kit, keeping the momentum going throughout the show. At only 6 years old, this is still a very young band, but the dynamics they have on stage proves the connections between these three run deep and they are standing on very solid ground.
RAA‘s sound hasn’t changed much from Hometowns to Departing, so I figured I knew what to expect from the live performance. But up close and personal, these songs had an immediacy to them not found on the albums. When Nils warns ‘I let you go, black sky come and I hold you‘ , you can’t help but look over your shoulder for the twister that’s sure to rip the place in half any second. The Ballad of RAA causes a slight jealousy to arise from within; it makes you feel like you missed out by growing up anywhere besides ‘the prairies‘. In the silence between songs such as Two Lovers and Under the Knife, you can actually hear the sound of hearts breaking.
A simple stage presence, pop songs you can dance to, rock songs you can rock to, folk songs that make you think and a lead singer with a voice that would have been the perfect fourth Middle Brother, RAA are a band worth checking out…even on a night when you really just wanted to be on your couch. I am made it, although I did leave just after midnight. The band might have had a few more songs in them, but I didn’t have energy left in me.
Don’t Haunt This Place
Under the Knife
The Ballad of the RAA
Maybe Tomorrow (Littlest Hobo)
Four Night Rider
In the Summertime
Drain the Blood
The Dethbridge In Lethbridge
Also, check out the new album on Saddle Creek…
The Rural Alberta Advantage – Departing
(Saddle Creek, 2011)
Another document from the Canadation trio on the advantages of growing up in rural Alberta.