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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Live Review: The Rural Alberta Advantage; racing begins today…

Other than Nils Edenloff's twangy croon, the first song on the new Rural Alberta Advantage album, Hometowns, sort of resembles a DCFC song -- warm keyboards, bells, thumping percussion. But despite having performed that very song last night at The Slowdown, there wasn't a single moment during their set that resembled how it sounds on their record, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The RAA -- a trio with Nils on lead vocals/guitar/keyboards, drummer Paul Banwatt and fetching female vocalist/percussionist/keyboardist Amy Cole (there is no bass) -- more closely resembles the dusty Americana sound of Deer Tick. I'm not the only one who thought so. I got a text halfway through their set from someone on the other side of the crowded room (not a sell-out, incidentally, but a beefy 140), saying "way more Deer Tick than Great Lake Swimmers." Yes it was. More Deer Tick than DCFC or Neutral Milk Hotel, who they also have been compared to.

The Deer Tick comparison left me wondering who I would pick between the two bands if I owned a label. Deer Tick seems to be riding a slightly higher wave, in part due to a longer history, NBC's Brian Williams and SXSW. Despite that, I'd still pick The RAA if only for the fact that their music is more interesting to me. Their songs have better variety and better hooks, and I like Hometowns a lot more than DT's Born on Flag Day, which has its moments but overall is forgettable.

Last night, the trio kept it simple, with Nils out front on acoustic guitar throughout most of the set while a giddy Cole pranced around stage with a maraca or leaned into a large drum at her feet. Their relatively short set was capped with a two-song encore that included one cover -- Nils doing a solo acoustic version of "Eye of the Tiger." Sweet.

I did catch most of Dave Dondero's solo acoustic set -- it's always nice to hear where Conor got his famous bray. I missed UUVVWWZ entirely. It seemed odd that one of the bands celebrating its CD release would be slated to go on first at 9 p.m. sharp, instead of in the middle (the sweet spot for any show) or last. I'm not sure what that says about how the label -- which owns the club -- perceives UUVVWWZ compared to The RAA (or ol' DD, for that matter).

* * *

A non-music aside…

This is a racing weekend. As I mentioned a couple days ago, the Speed! Nebraska/O'Leaver's adult soapbox derby is this Saturday at 11 a.m. at Seymour Smith Park (6802 Harrison St.). You don't want to miss the carnage. But that's not the only racing going on. Starting tonight, Horsemen's Park is hosting its annual 4-day track meet -- live horse racing -- with post times at 6 p.m. today and tomorrow and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. If possible, I shall be at all four days of racing as I cannot get enough of the spectacle. I hate casinos, I don't bet football and I've never been into cards. This is the only gambling that I do. And it's only one weekend per year.

For those of you wondering if it's worth your time, consider the following essay that I wrote for The Reader in 2004, an ill attempt at capturing The Sport of Kings. So angered was Horesmen's Park by this article that they pulled their advertising from The Reader (Hats off to John Heaston for having the cajones to run it as is). Although five years have passed, the facts (for the most part) remain the same. Sit back an enjoy:

* * *

A Day at the Races (First published in The Reader, July 21, 2004)

There's a scene in the 1989 Richard Dreyfuss horse racing classic Let It Ride where Dreyfuss' character, Jay Trotter, is accosted by his pissed-off wife, Pam (played fetchingly by Teri Garr), inside the track's Jockey's Club. Trotter's already had a good day, and it would only get better. Anyway, while sitting at a table with Trotter and a few other high rollers, Pam asks the essential question that cuts to the heart of horse racing: "Why can't you people just watch the horses run around the track without betting on them?"

Everyone titters with rolled-eyed laughter, and afterward Trotter explains it simply, calmly, matter-of-factly: "Because, Pam, without betting there would be no horse racing."

It really is as simple as that.

Look, I could write 800 words that try to capture the majesty of the so-called Sport of Kings with colorful, poetic descriptions of sweaty horses and tiny jockeys. I could make metaphors for how this "sport" is the ultimate test of man controlling nature against man. And while all of it may be true, it has nothing to do with why thousands of people showed up at Horsemen's Park last weekend for the annual four-day track meet.

* * *

After two days of relative success betting on individual horses "across the board," the final day was deemed "All Exotics Sunday." I would bet only exactas and daily doubles. By this point, I was still on the plus side moneywise for the weekend (not including what I spent on beer and food).

On the way to the track we figured that, like the year before, no one would show up on Sunday. Wrong. Of the three days we attended (we skipped Friday because of the nightmarish 311 concert) this seemed like the largest crowd. We did our best to dodge the insane people as we pulled into the makeshift parking lot / mud field adjacent to the track. They were driving around the barriers and through taped-off mud holes desperately trying to find a place to park. They ran from their SUVs dragging their children behind them by their wrists -- My God! Post time was in five minutes!

I'd done my research on the way to the track, busily underlining the names of horses in the day's program. Even so, there was no way we were going to run to the betting window in this heat. But just as we parked, up came a shuttle bus and we rode in air-conditioned comfort to the front door of the main building, passing the huffing father and his crying 5-year-old as they rounded the far corner of the track, lost in a cloud of dust.

Too bad we made it in time. Like the previous days, my bet in the first race was a loser. Keeping with the exotics theme, I had bet the 3-5 exacta and a 3-1 daily double -- a total of $5. My partner in crime bet the No. 10 horse -- $2 to win -- for no other reason than she liked the name: "What About David." She won $7.40. My No. 3 horse came in second to last.

It didn't matter. I figured I actually saved $1 by placing the exacta bet instead of the usual $2 across-the-board bet (total $6) that had been so successful the past couple days. Gambling means always looking at the positive side of losing.

The second race featured 1 and 1A horses -- that's two different horses that you can bet for the price of one -- a real bargain. I boxed an exacta with the 3 horse, "Lost in a Rush," which seemed like a sure thing. This time I got the lingo right at the betting window. The first time, the 60-year-old woman behind the window glared as I took five minutes explaining what I wanted to bet. "You mean Box the 3-5 in the first?" she asked through her smoker's hack. "Honey, you need to learn how to say it right if you wanna bet exotics."

After placing the bet, I was left with something like 50 minutes before post time and nothing to do. If you're a hardcore gambler you can waste money betting on the televised races inside the main facility. If not, you're left with either listening to the band (On the Fritz playing a cover of "Jesse's Girl"), watching the horses get examined in the paddock, listening to drunks explain why they always bet horses with blinders, or sitting in the grandstand under the canopy to avoid the scorching, blistering sun.

I took a moment to soak it all in and examine the humanity that makes up the usual day at the races:

On the far end of the spectrum were the crazies. For example, the shaggy old guy with a full beard, cowboy hat, long-sleeved dress shirt and red suspenders that held up a pair of denim shorts that revealed red-and-white Cat in the Hat-style knee-highs tucked into a pair of cowboy boots. There was plenty of this type to go around.

There were groups of older Mexican guys groomed in western shirts, wrinkleless blue jeans, immaculate boots and straw hats, quietly talking to their senioritas.

There were the suburban, blond-dyed housewives with their hair pushed behind visors revealing cocoa tans and made-up faces. Alongside them, their matching husbands in bright, tacky golf clothes.

There were kids everywhere -- since when is going to the track a family affair? Children ran around on the hot white rock, slapping each other with rolled-up racing programs and running absentmindedly into angry beer-soaked strangers. There's nothing like seeing a young, goateed father in Nascar gear bully his way to a betting window with a stroller, cigarette in the one hand, telling his five year old to "Find your mother. I'm out of money. Go!"

There were plenty of folks in their twilight years, taking a day off from the boats to enjoy some outdoor gambling. Saturday night's race featured the excitement of an apparent heart attack or heat stroke. The poor guy was white as a ghost, staring blankly ahead in the stands after the day's final race. Passing eyes shifted between the gasping man, the overhead odds board and the security people holding walkie-talkies and waving to the EMTs.

For every grinning, giddy first-time winner ("I can't believe it! My 'place' ticket won!") there was a bitter lifer, swearing "shit!" as he tore his losing tickets, tossing them like confetti into the summer breeze. Two minutes of sulking later, he was buried in the forms picking the next "winner."

"Exotics Sunday" ended up being a bust, and after the second race I returned to picking single horses on hunch bets. Both "Fajita" in the Third and "Chuckie's in Love" in the Fourth died before they hit the stretch, and I ended down $20 for the weekend. Not bad for three days of entertainment and a slice of Wal-Mart style Americana that can't be found anywhere else in Nebraska... at least until that gambling initiative passes in November.

* * *

That gambling initiative, as we all know, didn't pass.

--Got comments? Post 'em here.--

posted by Tim McMahan - at 10:54 AM

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