Published Oct 27, 2019Ryan Guldemond of Mother Mother understands the position Arkells have attained since their raucous emergence from Hamilton over a decade ago. "It's a beautiful thing," he said between songs, "to see our peers — our brothers — claim the Canadian throne as the titans of rock'n'roll."
The two bands were a fitting match for this bill at the Scotiabank Centre. They are now both Canadian rock veterans, several albums and innumerable tours deep, who progressed alongside each other while ushering in a new era of top-notch radio-friendly Canadian rock. These two bands have also progressed from scrappy indie roots into well-manicured pop groups, increasingly shifting their sound to something more suited for a stadium.
However, Arkells are not becoming a stadium rock band, they are one, ready to work a crowd of thousands without letting them catch a breath. These Hamiltonian heroes have been proving this at other stops on their extensive Rally Cry tour. Though faced with a stadium that may have only been two-thirds full this time around, the enthusiastic fans in attendance propelled Arkells through their well-crafted stage show in order to make for a memorable night. As bandleader and ball of energy Max Kerman said, "the show is only as good as the best that everybody brings."
Mother Mother's set was an energetic scan of singles from across their records, especially their latest, Dance and Cry (with the notable lack of any songs from their breakout Eureka), with Guldemond showing his chops as a guitarist, passionate vocalist and serpentine dancer. The backup vocals of Jasmin Parkin and Molly Guldemond soared during "Monkey Tree," and all three vocalists proved how tight their harmonies can be in the vocal break of set closer "Bit By Bit." Admitting that "it's not often we get to jam out in an arena," a few older tracks like "Body of Years" felt disconnected from the massive space, proving that this sort of gig is still a novelty for Mother Mother. However, another oldie, "Hayloft," had the opposite effect. Revised to feel even grander, this O My Heart standout was broken up with a tight cover of Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused," in which Jasmin Parkin took the lead with her otherworldly alto.
As soon as Arkells emerged, the energy escalated dramatically. They burst into "Hand Me Downs," with Max Kerman's rainbow tassels flowing while he paraded across the stage, the band's iconic "Arkells: Touring Band" banner hanging behind them surrounded with tinsel streamers. The Northern Soul Horns, a trio of brass players accompanying Arkells on this tour, were adding ornamentations in just the right places, fleshing the band's already huge sound out even further.
Kerman stressed immediately that "an Arkells show is a community affair," and the non-stop performance was filled with ways to facilitate the crowd's connection with the band and with one another. Channelling James Brown as best as he could, Kerman shouted out beloved Halifax venues like the Marquee and the Seahorse on "Michigan Left," and paused in the middle of "John Lennon" and yelling at the band "gimme five times!," with every instrument onstage obliging. During the playful "People's Champ," Kerman left the stage to shake some maracas and lead a conga line around the crowd on the floor.
The community felling was ushered in further when the stage went black and the band re-appeared at the front of the stage's extension, playing in a miniature configuration, simulating a more intimate show. Keyboardist Anthony Carone was now on mandolin, and drummer Tim Oxford on a bite-sized kit, for "Book Club." Shortly thereafter, Kerman invited two fans who had dressed up in Max Kerman costumes — rainbow tassels and all — to sing with him before launching into his ode to karaoke, "Only for a Moment." Somehow, in the middle of all this, Kerman also had time to give away a guitar, give a security guard a loving tap and bring a fan's sign onstage.
The band also played a song requested through their "Rally Cry Tour Request Line," which let fans call in to request a deep cut from the band. The caller's message played over the speakers — it was a dedication to their partner, eliciting an audible "aw" from the crowd. The fact that Arkells are for lovers was later driven home when Kerman went out into the crowd and invited any couples to join him for a "first dance" to sentimental favourite "My Heart's Always Yours." By the end of the night, after a playful encore featuring Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," Kerman instructed the crowd to put their arms around each other's shoulders.
As incredibly entertaining as Arkells may be in 2019, ushering an enormous crowd into feeling a sense of community can never match an organic community vibe. This is perhaps the only evident flaw in the Arkells as a stadium act — people are brought together through Kerman's guidance and stage choreography rather than sheer energy of impeccable pop songs. Regardless, these Canadian titans know what they are doing, and it is a blast to watch.