The big-hearted rock band Arkells opened up its performance at Toronto’s Budweiser Stage amphitheatre on Friday evening with Years in The Making. It’s actually been 17 months, not years, since the Hamilton, Ont., five-piece last played a real show. But who’s counting?
Everybody – everybody’s been counting.
The last concert Arkells gave was a private event that launched a charitable foundation led by Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse. It happened on March 11, 2020 – the same night the NBA season was cancelled because of the escalating COVID-19 pandemic. A lot of things were quickly locked down, including the live music industry as a whole.
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On Friday, Arkells singer Max Kerman wore shorts, gym socks and a track jacket, as if he hadn’t changed his clothes since that basketball gig 17 months ago. The band’s set time was 9 p.m., which is exactly, to the minute, when the concert began. Traditionally, headliners hit their stages a little late as a way of heightening anticipation. But no need for the showbiz stuff now – we’ve waited long enough.
The show was the first of three nights for the Juno-winning band at the venue. For the job of bringing back large-scale concerts to Toronto, Arkells are built for it. Its blue-collar anthems are happy, hustling and hallooing, with horns for extra oomph. More songs than not on Budweiser Stage employed the “whoa-ohh-ohh” singalong device. It’s a cheap trick and a fashionable gimmick, but these People’s Champ populists aren’t trying to win any Ivor Novello Awards for songwriting.
Kerman in particular was in his element. This guy is six feet or so of eager-to-please – he’s a stage-bounder, a crowd galvanizer, a shaggy-haired smiler. Before the music began, there was a preamble about being part of something bigger than ourselves, with a request that we should all revel in the joy of sharing the company of strangers again.
Kerman’s constituency was all for it. “All aboard, I heard my brother say,” as the band’s 2017 hit Knocking at the Door goes. “All aboard, like it’s some parade.” The crowd was on its feet all night. They danced a little, drank a lot and shouted along to the music. If one to were to squint just enough, it all appeared to be a return to normalcy.
However, we’re not there yet. Although the 16,000-person capacity venue looked full, attendance was capped at around 11,000, in accordance with Ontario’s mandated crowd-size COVID-19 protocols. Mask-wearing was required, except when eating and drinking. Although that policy was neither enforced nor religiously adhered to, it was obeyed by many, The tickets were paperless and the concession stands and merchandise hawkers did not accept cash.
There wasn’t a policy on vaccinated concertgoers or a stipulation of a negative COVID-19 test – something that’s a hot-button issue in the live music world. After American singer-songwriter Jason Isbell announced he would require all attendees to provide either proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test prior to entry to any of his concerts, he was applauded by many but booed by others. A show of his in Houston was cancelled after the venue could not (or would not) comply with Isbell’s new rules.
On Friday, concert promoter Live Nation announced it would require all artists, crew and attendees to provide proof of full vaccination or a negative test at its U.S. venues and festivals, starting Oct. 4. Earlier in the week, rival promoter AEG Presents declared a similar stipulation.
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Such a policy was already in effect at Live Nation’s recent Lollapalooza festival in Chicago, where the city’s public health commissioner Allison Arwady reported that just over 200 new COVID-19 cases arose from a four-day event that drew nearly 400,000 people. Based on the math, she said there was no evidence that the festival was a “super-spreader event.”
What this means to concertgoers in Canada is yet to be known. In a statement released to The Globe and Mail on Friday, a spokesperson for Live Nation Canada (whose portfolio includes Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom, along with Budweiser Stage) pointed to the strategy implemented at Lollapalooza, saying “we are working to get as many shows as possible on this model.”
Perhaps it’s nitpicking to point it out that Arkells frontman Kerman didn’t seem to be considering COVID-19 guidelines when he sang the new song All Roads while standing right next to a pair of health care professionals invited on stage. Their service, and that of other front-liners, was being saluted.
The night-ender was Knocking at the Door, a big number that raged and soared between moments of piano-based keening. “I regret the hours that were stolen,” Kerman sang. He also mentioned a “new perspective.” We’ll see how long that lasts.