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A Tightrope of Memories: The Rural Alberta Advantage in Chicago

Eight years old, sitting in my mom's caramel-colored minivan, covered in a million political bumper stickers, I sat shotgun digging my hands in the side compartment, searching for the blue, prairie-covered album Hometowns at my mom's requestThe Rural Alberta Advantage was my mom and I’s soundtrack for the countless drives back and forth from Omaha, Lincoln, or some middle-of-nowhere town in Nebraska–tucked behind corn fields and I-80. I fell in love with this album, its indie rock ballads paired with Postal Service like synths and harmonies, the occasional strings, but most of all I loved the drums. My mom and I would mimic drummer, Paul Banwatt’s, insane style, tapping our feet and hands on the dashboard for his kick drum, my mom's rings banging on the plastic like a mini cymbal. We’d daydream about memories to pair different songs with, when we would finally see them in concert, “In the Summertime” being my wedding song (or maybe my mom's too when she renews her vows), my mom holding a pretend mic waving her hand in the air as if she was the one who wrote the whole album. On Sunday, I got to see The Rural Alberta Advantage at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall. This was my second time seeing them, but this time, I got to interview Banwatt. 



Formed in Toronto almost 19 years ago, The Rural Alberta Advantage was an incomplete puzzle, trying out different musicians, until they found the missing piece. Banwatt explains, “Eventually, we realized the three of us really work in this way that any other configuration didn't– that realization that something was happening when it was the three of us. Once we had it, we never looked back.” The trio made up of Nils Edenloff (lead singer and guitar), Amy Cole (keys and singer), and Paul Banwatt (drummer) carry their individual talent into this harmonious sound that 19 years later has five albums and one EP under their belt.





When we arrived at Lincoln Hall, we could hear the echoes of folky opener Julianna Riolino. We shuffled past flannels and beanies cementing our place close to the stage. The Rural Alberta Advantage came on through the entrance of the venue, in a sort of procession of the indie folk rock magic that was about to unfold. The trio, made their way on stage, jumping right into the show. Banwatt says, “I always think of our shows as this tightrope, high wire act, kind of all feels like it might fall apart…and hopefully it doesn't. I want everyone to feel like we're on that exciting journey together.” The crowd that night did feel like watching a performer on a tightrope. In breaks, everyone was so quiet, holding their breath, not wanting the night to end–wanting to fully feel every strum, every beat, every harmonized oooo.



Although the RAA has a full discography to choose from and a new album to feature, they do a great job of mixing the old with the new. Their setlist pulls from every album, from Hometowns to The Rise & The Fall. This journey of their music allowed the crowd to move and grow with them in an hour and a half; from songs about towns in Canada to distant memories of lovers in a small sweater. Banwatt explains, “Our shows end up being an even mix across every album. We've done that since the very beginning…and I don't think we'd ever stop.” 



Listening to the RAA there is a clear story being told. In every album, the band creates these feelings rooted in wildness, love, heartache, and stories of home. It’s this feeling of an outstretched hand always pulling me back to that minivan and the prairie grass blowing beside it. Banwatt describes their discography as, “...Telling one big story, and it all kind of fits together. I get the same excitement about songs off each record. I think that energy is that kind of passion you feel when you're playing and hopefully other people are feeling when they're listening. We want that as a throughline for everything.” The energy and passion of the band is palpable. There is no denying it. From Cole’s folded hands and deliberate playing of the keys, Edenloff’s stories of particular tracks, to Banwatt’s wild and untethered drumming–there is a special air around them–keeping them on this ledge of excitement.



Some music just feels like the sounds of nature, bugs crawling on wood, trees rustling, water dribbling in the creek, the sun on your back, and The RAA has always called that to me. For someone who isn’t a huge nature girl, this band makes me want to lay in a forest until I become a mushroom. They perfectly curate this intersection between city and rural life and the inner call to both–pulling and loosening on each other in each track. Some of their tracks are fast-paced mimicking boots running to the train, and others slow it down, calling back to lightning bugs grazing my fingers. The swells and lulls of sound in their tracks keep that theme circling away and back again. Banwatt feels that “The contrast between urban and rural is a big part…In terms of our music, I think nature has always been part of it for that reason. And because it's such a big part of Canada, it's such an important part of our identity…Who you are as a person, who lives in a particular state, or province, or anywhere…the nature surrounds you no matter where you are, it's kind of part of who you are.” Songs like “Don’t Haunt This Place” combined with “3 Sisters” meet that city vs rural dichotomy. The dark to light the skyscrapers to prairies–all parts of the band embody and move through their music as this border and balancing act between the two.






Banwatt, the drums of the RAA, keeps this erratic heartbeat that is undeniable to ignore in their music and performance. So much so that I saw multiple people in the crowd mimicking his drums just as my mom and I did. He uses maracas, sleigh bells, sticks, and even fists to craft this unique and unhinged sound. A self-taught musician, Banwatt, “Learned how to play a rock beat from my brother and band in high school. It was a lot of putting on headphones and kind of playing along with John Bonham in high school, and failing…It was like, Okay, I can't do that. What can I do?” Eventually, Banwatt found his groove, sliding the drums into places where it seemed natural. Banwatt adds, “Especially with Nils, because he’s a very rhythmic singer and a rhythmic guitar player…I'm always hearing what kind of slots to fit into, especially in his vocal rhythms and melodies, what supports it, what plays off of it.” Banwatt’s drums add this perfect edge to every track, layering a different feeling and emotion and the opportunity for air drums in the crowd.



The night ended with an encore of “In The Summertime,” “The Dethbridge In Lethbridge,” and “Good Night.” Hearing the drum paired with the tambourine shake of “In The Summertime” brought me right back again to that minivan. This time, I sang into a pretend mic, hitting my rings against an empty glass instead of the dashboard. The RAA entered the crowd just as they began, the procession ending. The crowd circled in a moment that felt like being at a bonfire, the smell of smoke on your hair and clothes the next day. They said “Good Night” and departed out the venue doors, back into the van that would pass prairie grasses, green billboards, truck stops, and a caramel-colored minivan.








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