Forget growing fonder: apparently absence makes the heart grow more fevered, at least when it comes to Canadian indie fuzz-folkers the Rural Alberta Advantage.
The last time the RAA made it out to Halifax was in late 2011, playing a Pop Explosion set before a capacity crowd at St. Matthew's Church. For a university city that attracts many of its students from out of province, that three-and-a-half year gap means an entire contingent of younger show-goers have turned over among our ranks. So maybe it was the band's time away, or maybe it was the younger crowd that now calls the city home, but for whatever reason there was a kinetic energy buzzing through the Marquee Club audience last night — though to say it lacked focus would be an understatement.
But first, the band: the RAA are nearing the end of an eight-date Eastern Canadian tour that features several sold-out shows and additional nights added in certain cities. They seem to have a particularly strong following out here, which might seem surprising for a Central Canadian band with a Western Canadian name. But even in their use specifics (like multiple song names referring to Albertan cities and towns) there's a sense of placeless Canadiana in the RAA's music. It uses a warm, familiar folk foundation for its roots but in its performance — particularly Paul Banwatt's energetic drumming — the material gains a certain sense of momentum and mobility; an RAA song might start you off in the Prairies, but it feels as if it could soundtrack your entire road trip to the Maritimes if you let it.
Last night's setlist was pretty much identical to what the RAA has been playing throughout the touring for Mended With Gold, and little wonder: it's a well-built mix of old favourites and new material, back-loaded with crowd pleasers from the band's debut to send the audience home happy. Opening with "Stamp" and "Muscle Relaxants" from Departing, the 20-song set maintained its high energy throughout, even in its quieter moments. Banwatt's drumming caught most of my attention — his propulsive force is, ultimately, the secret to the band's success — but the belting harmonies between Nils Edenloff and Amy Cole deserve mention as well. Cole adds a softness that balances out Edenloff's yelpy, Jeff-Mangum-esque higher register, making for an oft-compelling vocal tone.
Sadly, a great deal of the noise last night came not from the band, but from the crowd. Though the RAA's material oscillates between perform barn-burning anthems and their softer folk songs, there was a healthy portion of the crowd who seemed only interested in the former. These were the show-goers who talked noisily through a lovely opening set by Ottawa singer-songwriter Kalle Mattson, whose soft voice and trumpet-adorned songs simply couldn't compete with the chatty din, despite his best efforts. They were the audience members who saw nearly every song from Mended With Gold as a conversation opportunity, even though some — particularly a slow-building "On the Rocks" — were actually show highlights, musically. They were the ones bounding around drunkenly and slamming unwelcomingly into others, even though the band took the stage at an early (by Halifax standards) 10 p.m.
But when the crowd's fever stayed sharply focused on the band and the music, it was almost enough to make me forget its other transgressions. Particularly on late-set Hometowns material like "Edmonton," "Drain the Blood" and the night-ending "The Dethbridge in Lethbridge," the audience and band seemed perfectly aligned in their energies, the crowd belting along with every one of Edenloff's crackling vocals. In those moments, the RAA's placeless Canadiana sounded perfectly at home.