Rural Alberta Advantage Lee's Palace, Toronto ON December 16

Rural Alberta Advantage Lee's Palace, Toronto ON December 16
Ghosts haunt any trip home. The Rural Alberta Advantage hadn't played their adopted hometown in over a year, so their Lee's Palace show had a high probability of paranormal hijinks. And so it was that frontman Nils Edenloff spent much of the show contending with spirits in his guitar, which added light fuzz as a guest performer, albeit without greatly sullying the otherwise triumphant return.

Taking impetus from earnest down strokes, whinnying vocals and Paul Banwatt's dynamic drumming, the trio burned through a set that covered most of their breakout debut Hometowns, as well as a smattering of new tracks and a RAA-styled take on "Little Drummer Boy."

Live, the songs have a sheen garnered from more than a year on the road, though Edenloff's vocals -- a mélange of Frank Black, Jon K. Samson and an emo troubadour -- do a great job of tempering the gleam. That's the RAA trick: juxtaposing opposed parts and tying them together, balancing sweetness and happy reminiscences with raw vocals and bittersweet recollections.

Particularly effective on "The Ballad of the RAA," the push and pull had Amy Cole inserting all manner of pleasantness, from angelic vocals to a glockenspiel. A worthy foil, she appositely offset and enhanced the song's inherent tension.

Similarly, the amiableness of "In the Summertime" benefited hugely from Edenloff's strained pipes. The real star of the show, though, was Banwatt, who shifted from driving force ("Four Night Rider") to subtle colouring ("Drain the Blood") and back again, as needed.

With a follow-up record, Departing, slated for a March release, the gig featured a taster plate of new cuts, most of which fit the mould -- despite some promising dark tones and menacing repetition -- and spurred sporadic repeat-after-me audience participation (typically a good sign for largely unheard material).

The fresh batch of tracks may not stray that far from their predecessors, though clever layering, varied rhythm and some judicious restraint bulked up the arrangements, showing promise for the recordings. In particular, "Tornado '87" showed off expanded storytelling range.

Regardless of the warm welcome for new material, it was still the de facto hits -- "Don't Haunt This Place" and "Four Night Rider" -- that drew real fervour, turning prolonged patches into huggy sing-alongs. Incidentally, is it impossible to hug a ghost?