Monday, April 25, 2011

The Rural Alberta Advantage at the Beachland Ballroom

Canadian indie rockers The Rural Alberta Advantage rolled into Cleveland on Easter Sunday for the last stop of their U.S. tour in support of their new (and highly recommended) album Departing. They played a great show to a very appreciative audience in the Beachland Ballroom (a step up in venues from their last Cleveland show in the Beachland's smaller room, the Tavern - it's good to see the band's audience expanding). Before I expound on last night's concert, though, I'd like to talk about an experience the previous night.

On April 23rd I went to Columbus to see The Decemberists play at the Lifestyle Communities Pavilion. It was, quite frankly, a disappointing experience. The LC's indoor venue holds 2200 people, and it was sold out. It turned out that it really wasn't my kind of atmosphere for seeing a concert. I can't fault the Decemberists for getting so popular - I certainly think they deserve it - but I can definitely fault all the people at the show who were more interested in getting drunk and talking to their bros than in watching and listening to the band perform. It came close to ruining the show for me. By the end of the night, it was, overall, an enjoyable experience. Especially "The Mariner's Revenge Song," which is just an amazing thing to witness live. Then, at least, being in a crowd of two thousand people all screaming as if we were being devoured by a giant whale added to the experience rather than detracting from it. When the band opened by playing The Tain in its entirety(!!!) and people all around were talking the whole time, on the other hand...

Colin Meloy definitely noticed it, as he made a comment at one point in the concert about how the people toward the back didn't seem to be paying attention. It makes me wonder whether bands might sometimes prefer to play for somewhat smaller crowds who are all paying them rapt attention. It's hard to imagine an artist wishing that less people would listen to their music, but there are tradeoffs to popularity, I suppose - both for artists and for their fans.

Moving forward one night to the show at the Beachland, the atmosphere couldn't have been more different. The crowd was at best one-tenth the size of that at the LC, but everyone who was there was there to see music performed.

I very much enjoyed opening act Lord Huron. I had never listened to any of their music before, but after the show I ended up buying both of their EPs. They play a breezy brand of indie folk-rock. At times in the show I was reminded of a folkier Local Natives. I've also seen "a tropical Fleet Foxes" used as a descriptor, which I could see. I've since learned that the EPs were a solo project of the lead singer, and he has now put together a band to play shows and write new music. Lord Huron could work on their consistency, as I found some of their songs to be just decent. Several of the songs they played, on the other hand, were just outstanding, including "The Stranger." I'm pretty sure some of the songs I most enjoyed are as yet unreleased. They really had some killer harmonies, so I'll definitely look forward to the full band's recorded output. This is a band to watch.

The RAA took the stage next, and performed a roughly one-hour-twenty-minute set that covered the large majority of their two album catalog. I recently reviewed their new album, so I would find it redundant to describe their music in great detail, but suffice it to say that they are even better live than on their albums. Each of the three members of the band brings a tremendous passion and enthusiasm to their performances. Nils Edenloff really packs the emotions into his nasal, at times heart-wrenching vocals. Amy Cole's synth parts and pretty backing vocals provide a vital complement, and Paul Banwatt's drumming is just a marvel to behold in person. Here's their setlist (I managed to snag Amy's after the show):

Muscle Relaxants
Don't Haunt This Place
Under the Knife
Rush Apart
Tornado '87
Ballad of the RAA
Two Lovers
The Breakup
Eye of the Tiger (Nils solo)
Four Night Rider
Frank, AB
In The Summertime
Drain the Blood
The Deadroads

North Star
Barnes' Yard
Sleep All Day
The Dethbridge in Lethbridge
Good Night

Some of the highlights to me included "Frank, AB" and "Stamp," but really, the whole set was great. When Nils introduced "Dethbridge" as the last song, I was thinking, "No! Play 'Good Night' too!" ("Good Night" was not on the written setlist.) So when Nils led the band off of the stage and down onto the floor among the crowd as "Dethbridge" came to its close, I was both thrilled and relieved. The band closed, as they had the previous time I saw them, by playing "Good Night" unplugged standing in the middle of the audience. It's really a special thing to experience. I couldn't help but think about how this would never work with the crowd at the previous night's show.

Nils said on stage that this was the last night of their tour, and they couldn't think of a better way to end it. He was obviously very sincere in his gratitude for the great audience response, and it was a really cool thing to see. All three band members were eager to chat with the crowd by the merch table after the show. I absolutely love this poster, which they were happy to autograph:

It was just a fantastic night, and I'm really appreciative of both a great band, and the great venue I got to see them in.

On a related note, the same night that The Decemberists played Columbus, another band I really like, The New Pornographers, played in Cleveland at the House of Blues. I saw them play the Beachland (with Okkervil River opening, truly an amazing show) a few years ago. As reported in Cleveland Scene, during the show Neko Case said, "I like the Beachland about 8000 times fucking more" than the House of Blues. As if I needed any more reason to like Neko Case!

But I guess this goes back to the idea of tradeoffs that I mentioned earlier. For me as a fan, I kind of feel like the RAA are at a near ideal level of popularity - they tour regularly, and I can see them with a good-sized but not overwhelming crowd in an intimate venue for pretty cheap. And of course, they clearly very much enjoy playing such shows as well. But if they grew to a Decemberists level of popularity, they would undoubtedly be able to be more comfortable making a living from music. I wonder what the musicians' feelings on these matters are?

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