There was a moment of hesitation, then the stranger to my right reached out his arms to me. It was August of 2021, and we were among the 11,000 people at Toronto’s Budweiser Stage to see Arkells. Relief was in the air. After a 17-month drought, Arkells’ three-night run at the amphitheatre marked the return of big-scale live music to the city. But amid the euphoria, there was also nervousness – how do we gather again? How do we celebrate together? During the heartfelt number My Heart’s Always Yours, people in the crowd paused for a moment, then began to link arms.
“It’s a tradition that started in our shows in 2015 or 2016,” Arkells frontman Max Kerman told me when we sat down to chat at a café in Toronto’s west end. “I noticed that seven dudes were arm in arm, swaying side to side with each other, and I said ‘can everybody do what they’re doing? Put your arms around your neighbour.’” And like that, an Arkells live show ritual was born.
Kerman said that so much of the band’s ethos comes from paying close attention to how their music interacts with a live audience. The quintet rock outfit from Hamilton has been around since 2006 and they’ve put out eight albums and sold out arenas across the country. In the Group of the Year category at the Junos, they’ve taken home five of the last 10 trophies, including the past two years in a row. But above all else, they’ve come to be known for their live shows, a raucous and spiritual gathering, a rapture of singalongs and arm-in-arm swaying. On stage, they often perform with a horn section and backing vocalists. It’s musical maximalism.
Mike DeAngelis, who plays guitar, has thought a lot about the atmosphere at an Arkells show. “We put in effort, and it’s perhaps on the earnest side, and it’s something that people really appreciate,” he told me. “Some people prefer performers on the stoic side,” DeAngelis added, “but we’re very open and we want to bring people in. The feeling of ‘I’m going to have a smile on my face at the concert,’ that’s a feeling audiences don’t get at every show.”
Arkells’ sound has shifted over the years, from a traditional rock arrangement to an eclectic mix of pop, rock and soul, all with the expressed intention of making you dance. They are, at their core, crowd pleasers, a democratic band with big choruses and emotional release. They don’t shy away from a whoa-oh moment. If earnestness is an unattractive label for some rock bands, Arkells don’t seem too fussed about it. “We come from a tradition of being a working band. And if you look at the tradition of working soul bands, they’re there to entertain,” Kerman said. “They’re not there to be cooler than you.”
Then there’s the earnestness you get back when you put earnestness out into the world. “One of the amazing things is that we get a lot of direct messages from people who share their stories with us,” Kerman said. For instance, fans have shared with Arkells the way their music has soundtracked major personal moments.
“They’ll share how they listened to Relentless when they’re going through chemotherapy, or they’ll share how And Then Some, or lately Quitting You has been their wedding song.” For Kerman and his group, that’s a profound privilege. “We take that job seriously. We’re not public servants in that we’re not teachers or nurses or anything like that, but I feel a sense of duty, so if there’s a little bit of goodness we can bring to someone’s life, that’s a big part of the job.”
Arkells have had a busier pandemic than most. In the summer of 2020, they put out Campfire Chords, an acoustic album of their biggest songs and a few new ones. Then in the last 14 months alone, they released Blink Once, a grand-sounding album filled to the brim with stadium-sized hooks such as You Can Get It and Arm in Arm, headlined the Grey Cup halftime show in their hometown, and released Blink Twice. That album builds on the sonics of its predecessor with propulsive collaborations, such as Past Life featuring Cold War Kids, and Nowhere to Go, which features a colossal saxophone moment from the E Street Band’s Jake Clemons, nephew of the late legend Clarence Clemons.
Still, Kerman and DeAngelis don’t take the opportunity to perform these songs for granted. The albums were finished during the pandemic, during a period of shifting gathering rules. “It is really weird to try to imagine playing big singalongs with massive guitar riffs when you have a mask on, and there’s only two guys allowed in the studio,” Kerman said. “I remember working on Past Life and we were in L.A. and masks were coming back – two guys took a road trip, one person took the day off, and we had to finish it in a process that was so foreign to us.”
DeAngelis added that even when they were living in the same city, the pandemic took its toll on the creative process. “We were working over Zoom, or working by sending voice notes on our phone. But all these things were good to keep the reps up and keep working.”
Arkells are seeing the fruits of their labour bear out in the live show. “I’m so glad we did all that work now that we’re touring. These songs are some of the highlights of the set – we’re opening with Past Life, we’re closing with You Can Get It, and Dance With You is one of the big moments of the set list. These songs live and breathe when we tour them.”
After a stretch of stability in live events and the world being open, there’s once again a whiff of unpredictability in the air. Amid increasing worries about illness and provincial governments contemplating the return of mask mandates, Arkells will play Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Nov. 25. But they don’t appear deterred by unpredictability.
“Even before the pandemic, being in a band is impossible as a job, statistically speaking,” Kerman said. “Part of our success is that we’re not afraid to try things. Yes, the last couple of years have been ‘how are we going to figure this out,’ but on a certain level, it’s always been ‘how are we going to figure this out.’ ”