“Tonight, the Canadian Tire Centre is a non-denominational Church of Rock and Roll,” announced Arkells lead singer Max Kerman Friday night. “And you are the choir!”
The Hamilton rockers, whose uplifting songwriting and exhilarating live shows have earned them a legion of fans, brought their Rally Cry Tour to Ottawa on February 15th.
If Friday’s show is the standard, this tour should cement Arkells’ reputation as one of the best live acts in Canada. The band always sounds great on record, but it’s onstage where their songs truly come alive, and this show was no exception. Thus, Rally Cry single “Relentless” was reborn as the epic show opener it was always destined to be, and familiar hits were enhanced by richer arrangements and the sort of passionate delivery that can’t be replicated in a studio.
Kerman’s exuberant stage presence and interplay with the other band members was also a joy to behold; it was the type of show where everyone onstage seemed to be having just as much fun as the fans.
A lot of Ottawa concertgoers have fond memories of seeing Arkells play various local festivals and student events (they graced the University of Ottawa twice during my four years there). The audience knew every word to “Leather Jacket,” and follow-ups “Michigan Left” and “Never Thought That This Would Happen” elicited nostalgic thrills.
The stage Friday night was far flashier than those scrappy outdoor sets of yore, with an elaborate light show and some props (they brought a payphone onstage for “Leather Jacket” – answering their iconic quip “Who the f*ck uses a payphone?”). Musically, the show also benefited from the addition of a horn section, which gave the songs a dynamic old-school feel. Later in the show, pianist Anthony Carone even brought out a keytar.
Arkells made these arena rock cliches feel not only new, but genuine. The classic crowd-pleasing tactic of naming off local landmarks (in this case, Bank Street, the Babylon nightclub, the Rideau Canal, and a handful of local schools) took on an extra resonance, considering the band actually has spent a good deal of time hanging around Ottawa. They were also familiar enough with the area to realize that the Kanata venue was a fair distance away from Ottawa proper; Kerman’s frequent digs at the neighbourhood went over well with the downtown fans (not so much with this suburbanite – come on guys, Kanata is a great place to live, work, and raise a family!).
The band stripped things down for a bit with a harmonica-accentuated rendition of the folk-y “Champagne Socialist,” which segued into righteous workers’s anthem “Oh, The Boss is Coming.” Things got schmaltzier (but no less populist) for pump-up anthem “Eyes on the Prize,” with Kerman wading through the crowd handing out “doctor’s notes” permitting exhausted fans to skip work the next morning.
Like The Tragically Hip, Arkells have an uncanny ability to write bittersweet songs that act as balms against dark times. Back-to-back Rally Cry singles “American Screams” and “People’s Champ” are both potent, angry protest songs that double as infectiously catchy dance floor bangers; Kerman was equally convincing exhorting the crowd to dance as he was pointedly delivering bitter lines like “I promise you, no charlatan will ever die a martyr.”
Their stripped-down acoustic version of “Kiss Cam” conjured the campfire sing-a-long of its melancholy opening lines. Next up, Kerman invoked a karaoke bar on “Only For a Moment;” the track, its joyous chorus contrasting with ominous lyrics buried in the verses (“The doctor says it might run in the family / so we’ll be keeping an eye”) retained its core of sadness amidst the glitz.
The latter half of the show played like an Arkells greatest hits. Wistful love songs (“And Then Some;” “11/11”) appeared alongside party anthems like Rally Cry‘s “Saturday Night” and passionate rockers such as “Come to Light,” anti-corruption scorcher “Whistleblower,” and Jackson Square deep cut “Blueprint,” played at a fan’s request.
They closed the set with a hat trick: their inspiring call to action “Knockin’ at the Door,” class conscious kiss-off “Private School,” and finally “Hand Me Downs,” a sweet ode to a teen transcending her troubled home life.
For the encore, the band returned for a fun cover of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and Morning Report love song “My Heart’s Always Yours,” which they dedicated to the fans. Like everything else that night, it felt absolutely sincere.
Opener: Lord Huron
Los Angeles four-piece Lord Huron opened the show with a compelling set of lush alt-folk. The sound was roots-y yet otherworldly, combining a sense of folk-horror gloom with occasional bursts of hypnotic catchiness (the mystical “Ancient Names Part I” and “Meet Me in the Woods”).
It was pretty rad.
Line-up: Lord Huron / Arkells
Venue: Canadian Tire Centre, Ottawa ON
Date: Friday, Feb. 15/2019