Arkells take the U.S. by storm in headline tour
Oh, Canada, land of hockey, bacon, Tim Horton’s, poutine, and Justin Trudeau. Thankfully for America, Canadians are friendly sorts who are more than willing to share their culture (excepting their prime minister) with their neighbors to the south. One such national treasure that was recently on loan to the U.S. in the form of an extensive cross-country tour is indie rock band Arkells. Hamilton, Ontario, natives, Arkells regularly sell out arenas and stadiums across their home country (Arkells Take Over Budweiser Stage With July Talk, Said The Whale, and Mondo Cozmo), yet remain relatively unknown in the States. They spent much of the fall and winter of 2016/2017 on the road with Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls (Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls close out two-year tour in Pittsburgh), which saw them accumulate quite a few new fans. After a few summer festival stops and one massive headline show in Niagara Falls, Arkells have snaked their way across the U.S., ending up on the east coast to wrap up this leg of their Knocking at the Door tour.
An unseasonably balmy Wednesday night saw them return to Philadelphia for their first appearance since they played a blistering set at the XPoNential Festival in July. The band have found advocates in both WXPN, where fellow Toronto native Talia Schlanger recently became the host of the renowned, nationally broadcast World Café, and Radio 104.5, who have included Arkells in their rotation and who hosted the night’s festivities at Underground Arts. The queue was small, composed of diehard Arkellians, and the vibe in the room once the doors opened was decidedly laidback. But by the time the openers came onto the stage, the room had filled with people who had come from near and far for a night of musical abandon. They would not be disappointed.
Irontom, a four-piece outfit from Los Angeles, was charged with the task of warming up the audience, and with a set that was part avant-garde performance piece and part straight-up rock show, they had many heads nodding in time with the music. From his playing to his appearance, guitarist Zach Irons channeled guitar heroes from bygone eras, and lead singer Harry Hayes brought a wide-eyed androgyny that called to mind glam rock gods like Bowie and Mercury. They are a band that begs to be seen, not just heard.
After a brief intermission to ready the stage for the headliners, instruments crammed together so tightly one wondered where the band would stand in the midst of it all, the room went dark, a light hanging behind that drum kit that read “Arkells Touring Band” flickered on, and Canada’s best kept secret sauntered out. They wasted no time in channeling the audiences’ excitement, singer Max Kerman leading the crowd in the first verse of the classic hymn “Amazing Grace” while the band, which features Mike DeAngelis on guitar, Anthony Carone on keys, Tim Oxford on drums, and Nick Dika on bass, settled in behind their instruments, before launching into “Making Due”, a track off last year’s Morning Report. They would play the entire set with the barest of breaks between songs, ensuring that the crowd stayed just as breathless and sweaty as them. They deftly hopscotched across their catalog, older hits like “Michigan Left” and “Book Club” mingling with “Private School” and “11:11,” but there wasn’t a song they played that wasn’t met with the collective voice of the audience singing along. Kerman had exhorted everyone to party like it was a weekend instead of a school night, and the crowd delivered, thanks in large part to the tireless energy of the band.
Their music transcends genres – it’s rock ‘n’ roll mixed with soul and R&B, a bit of gospel combined with protest song anger and a honeyed dash of pop that compels a person to dance. Elton John and Kanye West’s influences are as evident as that of the Foo Fighters and Hall and Oates. Halfway through “Pulling Punches,” Kerman turned the floor over to Carone, who tore through a rendition of the legendary Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire,” complete with piano-climbing theatrics, before picking up right where they’d left off. Not long after, Kerman jumped into the crowd as he’s wont to do, and when he emerged towards the back of the room a moment later, he’d collected two members of the Liberty Bell Brass Band, who had performed with Arkells at XPN Fest and who, Max would explain, had told the band fifteen minutes prior to the show that they’d not only be in attendance, but that they’d have their instruments. So those folks who missed the soulful, sax- and horn-filled rendition of “Drake’s Dad” (and yes, the song is really named after the father of that Drake) at the festival had their curiosity satisfied a few months later at Underground Arts.
The night would not be without its powerful, thought-provoking moments either. Towards the end of the set, Kerman stepped forward on the stage, acoustic guitar in hand, and asked the room at large for quiet for the song that was to follow. Once silence descended, he began playing an unamplified, goosebump-inducing version of “Whistleblower,” which he dedicated to all the people fighting for justice and truth. Even the close of the show, which was just as raucous as one might have expected, came with the “power to the people” message when they tore into “Knocking at the Door,” the hard-hitting single that had its genesis when they performed in DC the night prior to the presidential inauguration in January.
Fast forward through the remainder of the week, through shows in Boston and a sold-out NYC, to a Saturday night in the nation’s capital. Despite being the early set of a doubleheader at U Street Music Hall, Arkellians lined up well in advance of doors and quickly filled the narrow room, ensuring that plenty of people caught Irontom’s infectious, hard rock energy. Due to the time limit, they played an abbreviated set, and the intermission breakdown and set-up of the stage happened at near-record pace. A few minutes past 8:30, Arkells emerged. If the Philly crowd was loud, the one in DC was deafening. Whether it was because they knew it was the last show of the tour or because they were just that exuberant, the audience gave the band every ounce of themselves, and the band responded in kind. When Kerman asked for hands in the air, every hand went up. When he told everyone to dance as if no one was watching, they did. The atmosphere was one of carefree joyfulness and togetherness. As he had in Philadelphia, he invited a guitar-savvy fan on stage to play the end of “Private School,” and during “Leather Jacket,” when he spotted a sign held by a young woman that asked if he would sign her leather jacket, he not only pulled her up on stage so he could do so, but he invited her to stay and share the microphone as they sang the end of the song.
Though it had been a stellar show, the real magic didn’t happen until the very end. For the encore, Arkells brought Irontom on the stage with them and launched into a cover of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” that was so explosive, it could have burned the building down. Having stirred the audience into a frenzy, they had just started playing their closing song, “Knocking at the Door,” when, having exceeded the 10pm curfew, the power was cut. Max looked over his shoulder when he realized there was no sound coming from his mic, but turned back to face the room because an unexpected thing had happened – the audience continued singing. In fact, there were so many voices raised in unison that some people hadn’t realized that the band no longer had power until Kerman said as much. Having stated that they were going to finish the song in spite of it all, the band led the room in a stirring a cappella rendition that soared to the rafters.
It’s mind-boggling that an internationally-renowned band as dynamic, talented, and entertaining as Arkells flies so far under the radar in the U.S. But though they deserve to sell out arenas and stadiums here too, if the tradeoff is an intimacy and accessibility that our Canadian counterparts can only dream of, maybe we’ll keep them as our little secret a little while longer.
Set lists, Philadelphia and Washington, DC
Come To Light
Never Thought That This Would Happen
Come Back Home
Pulling Punches / Great Balls of Fire
And Then Some
A Little Rain (A Song for Pete)
My Heart’s Always Yours
Running Down a Dream (Tom Petty cover, Philadelphia)/ Sabotage (Beastie Boys cover, DC)
Knocking At the Door
Coverage by Colleen Martin & photography by Patrick Gilrane
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