Tragedy, grief, and homecoming fuel Rural Alberta Advantage’s return to Canada

Rural Alberta Advantage with Yukon Blonde at the Commodore Ballroom, 11/24/17

How do you come home when everything has changed? For The Rural Alberta Advantage, you write amazing music and play it as loud and pounding as you possibly can. When they finally busted out “Beacon Hill,” the lead single from their new album about the wildfire that scorched Fort MacMurray last year, Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom was the hottest place to be.

After a month touring in the States with Yukon Blonde, the Canadian groups returned to Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom for their first show above the 49th Parallel on Friday night (Nov. 24). You could tell they were glad to be home — and the crowd, including no small number of Albertans, was happy to receive them.

But even though it was only a month, it is a changed country. Frontman Nils Edenloff couldn’t deny it  — pausing midway through the show to dedicate their song, “Stamp,” to the late Gord Downie. The RAA toured with the Tragically Hip several times, opening for them at several summer festivals where they played Downie’s solo song, “Canada Geese” and the RAA’s “Stamp” with him on stage together. Edenloff’s wailing, “And the hardest thing about this love is that you’re never coming back,” fuelled by this grief and homecoming has never felt more powerful.

Downie has a remarkable influence on Canadian music, proving you can succeed in writing about Canadian landmarks and culture. The Rural Alberta Advantage have capitalized on it. Their set bounced four albums, hitting it’s highest points with song staples — songs about natural disasters, tragedy, and Albertan towns. The aforementioned “Beacon Hill,” as well as “Tornado ‘87” and “Vulcan, AB” were highlights of the performance — regularly greeted with shouts of “I was there!”

While the RAA channeled the energy of the room, the mix was not as well-organized. Drummer Paul Banwatt is a beast on drums, hammering out lightening fast fills on his kit so hard you’d swear it’s about to break.  The RAA’s unique setup keeps him to the front of the stage and close to the crowd, rather than hidden away in the back. It’s a blessing for enthusiastic fans since Banwatt is a skilled multi-tasker and interacts with the crowd while pounding beats. Unfortunately, it’s also a mess for the levels — standing to the right side of the stage results in the drums overpowering all other elements of the song. Backup vocalist and keyboardist Robin Hatch was sometimes completely inaudible.  

The Rural Alberta Advantage terminated their encore with the ever-suitably final “Deathbridge in Lethbridge,” a song about a titular bridge infamous for suicides in Alberta. It’s a song that plays to all of their strengths — a bruising guitar and drum line, a place or time of tragedy for Canadians, and ghostly backing vocals. It’s good to have them home.