Arkells' Comeback Show in Toronto Proves That Community Is the Lifeblood of Music
The band's "Long Weekend" felt like a celebration, but a lack of pandemic protocols left a tension hanging over the night
Published Aug 16, 2021Hamilton's Arkells carry on in the time-honoured tradition of politicizing the dance-floor — which perhaps makes them the ideal choice to end the live music drought at Toronto's Budweiser Stage, as they did on Friday, August 13 with the first of three "Long Weekend" shows, even while the Delta variant of COVID-19 rages on.
The five-piece of Max Kerman (vocals, guitar), Mike DeAngelis (guitar), Nick Dika (bass), Tim Oxford (drums) and Anthony Carone (keyboard) may have originated in the dorms of McMaster University in Hamilton, ON, but they've long been calling some of the biggest venues in the country home. This includes selling out their hometown's football stadium in 2018, marking the city's biggest show since Pink Floyd in 1975.
Arkells' blend of energetic, guitar-driven rock with pop sensibilities evokes the sociopolitical singalong choruses of Bruce Springsteen, alongside cues taken from disco, sports references and an undeniable passion for Motown. The magic of Arkells is unquestionably in their live show: they're very much "for a good time, call." Beneath their signature "TOURING BAND," marquee, they're known to fill out their sound with a slew of back-up vocalists (nicknamed "the Arkettes") and outstanding, larger-than-life brass ensemble Northern Soul Horns.
Even pre-pandemic, a big summertime Arkells show was always treated as more than a concert; it was an event. This one felt like the most significant yet. Similarly, creating safe spaces in live music was already a challenge. The open-hearted hopefulness coursing through the persona of bands like Arkells certainly helps set this tone — but, as this "Long Weekend" opener proved, it isn't everything.
Tapping Haviah Mighty as an opener was a promising start. An MC at the top of her game in both delivering hard-hitting bars and melodic flow, she embodied boundless energy and gratitude. If she hadn't shared that this was her first amphitheatre performance, you'd have never guessed.
The anticipation for the headliners was so much so that the house lights went down at precisely the band's posted set time of 9 p.m., with a countdown clock bringing everyone to their feet.
This is only the second time they'd ever played opener "Years in the Making" live, the first being at a private event for Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse's charitable foundation on March 11, 2020 — 16 months ago, which "feels like 16 years," according to Kerman. It's worth noting that they initially launched this single with a campaign urging people to pay for annual subscriptions to journalistic publications, sending out exclusive free merch to everyone who showed proof of purchase.
Shortly after that final performance at Nurse's private event, Kerman began hosting Flatten the Curve Music Classes via Instagram live to keep communal spirit alive when COVID-19 first drove everyone into isolation. The band account would post the chords and lyrics for a different song of theirs and then go online with a tutorial afterwards, answering questions and hearing fan stories along the way. Eventually, fans were invited to post creative submissions to raise money for Food Banks Canada in collaboration with RBC.
Aside from being an avid promoter of good causes (as well as the Hamilton bar Odds that he co-owns, his Mike on Much podcast and his own band), Kerman is an infectiously enthusiastic frontman, oozing charisma. He's an apt leader for any rallying cry and (in the best way possible) makes feeling self-conscious about your dancing nearly impossible with the way he owns his own moves. Which, of course, is only elevated by his fashion choices (ska thanks you, sir).
Music that primarily functions to soundtrack a good time can be transcendent — especially at a time like this. Arkells are purveyors of respite, whether it's from a long workweek or a global pandemic that has radically altered the fabric of our lives.
"This means more than you know," Kerman told the Toronto crowd, getting a little choked up. He characteristically took the time to thank pretty much every person involved in putting on the show, as well as the health care and essential workers that helped get us here.
Arkells have been explicitly pro-vaccination, from participating in the This Is Our Shot campaign against vaccine hesitancy and misinformation (doctors Anju Anand and Raj Grewel from the initiative made an onstage appearance) and jokingly spreading some counter-narratives to vaccine conspiracy theories by injecting keyboardist Carone with a cartoonishly large needle on stage before he took a frenetic solo brought-on by the "side-effects." Naturally, they proceeded to play "Whistleblower," pleading for "Just a little bit of faith" in our institutions.
"When the power's with people / I don't get pessimistic," Kerman sings in the roaring 2017 Women's March-inspired "Knocking at the Door" — buoyant words that hit with a pang of uncertainty in a time when so many have been openly showed a blatant disregard for others, taking a stand against public health.
But the band sees their fans as an extension of themselves. That bit in a show where a frontperson asks if a crowd wants to "join the band" through some audience participation? That's the entirety of an Arkells concert. It's increased by the fact that you feel like you could run into any of those guys on the street and greet them like an old friend.
Likewise, they brought up a recently married couple who had their first dance to a sea of phone flashlights with the sentimental "My Heart's Always Yours." They even went so far as to bring back their touring song request hotline for the weekend, landing on "A Little Rain (A Song for Pete)" for a fan who had recently completed cancer treatment.
Friendship — community — is the lifeblood of their music in more ways than one. Whether it's letting us know that the Matty namedropped in "Book Club" is in the front row or playing a "With a Little Help from My Friends" snippet, this is the spirit of Arkells: they want to play a part in your life, not just your playlist.
Even if you're at the show alone, you don't feel like you are. And that's special. (Of course, that doesn't stop a woman there by herself from being asked why she's unaccompanied.)
But telling people to look out for one another doesn't mean they actually will, even if those words are coming in earnest from a band they love. Is it enough to lead by example?
They tacked "through a mask" onto the first cardinal rule of an Arkells show — you have to sing along — but it was difficult for security to enforce, given how many people were drinking. Still, while many may have skirted around it, many others chose to stay masked-up.
While capped at 11,000 from Budweiser Stage's 15,000 capacity, it felt completely full. Spaces between seats were scarce and social distancing was nonexistent. The promised "temperature check" screening at the door didn't happen.
When an increasing number of musicians (Jason Isbell, Japanese Breakfast, Bleachers) are mandating proof of vaccination or negative tests results for concertgoers in the U.S., it's hard to say how the future of live music in Canada will fare in comparison. Would it have been too soon to have made this the policy for the Arkells Long Weekend? Or could the band have used their leverage? How much agency are artists afforded in creating a safe space?
"We didn't know how this was gonna go," Kerman admitted at one point in the set, "We were scared."
There's power in the admission of fear, which surely resonated with many of the people in attendance who had decided to take this risk after having taken this pandemic with an abundance of caution. But could that fear have been eased even a little by implementing and enforcing more measures to mitigate transmission?
In an era that is still a ways away from being "post-pandemic," it's a new frontier for live music. The back-and-forth of feeling terrified, hyper-aware of being surrounded by so many people, and forgetting everything while being held in the palms of the songs you know by heart is a strange pendulum. You're not looking over your shoulder — you have your eyes on the stage — but you're surrounded by people whose presence once felt communal and comforting. Now they register as a threat. Now, it's hard to trust they'll look out for you, even if that's regulation at an Arkells show.
There's a sense of irony in the sudden awareness of our heaving lungs on a night like this. For the first time in a long time, we felt the vibration through the concrete and danced together — if only for a moment — as Arkells eulogized the past year and a half with a cover of Robyn's "Dancing on My Own."