Concert review: Arkells play Toronto’s biggest pandemic concert yet

ARKELLS with HAVIAH MIGHTY at Budweiser stage, Friday, August 13. Rating: NNN

It’s been 521 days since I last went to a concert. I know because Arkells tweeted out a date calculator for fans to visualize their live music droughts.

That drought ended on Friday night at Budweiser Stage. It was night one of the Arkells Long Weekend, a trio of shows by the Toronto/Hamilton CanRock band at the Ontario Place amphitheatre heralding the return of live music to the city. 

There’s been other live music during the pandemic – virtual events, drive-in concerts, underground raves, patio performances and, since Step 3 of reopening kicked in last month, some modest indoor and outdoor shows. 

But this show felt like the first big, proper concert event in Toronto since the pandemic started. The venue was at 75 per cent capacity – or 10,500 people. Looking out over that sea of humanity singing and dancing together, it felt like a lot more than that – it felt like an honest-to-goodness sold-out big-ticket show. 

Arkells are a band with boundless positivity, and In the collective energy of a big group of strangers all enjoying the same experience together, it was surprisingly easy to forget the concert was happening during a pandemic. 

Is that a good thing? I wavered back and forth on that throughout the night. 

As the members of Arkells walked out on stage together and anticipation filled the air, lead singer Max Kerman told the crowd his own concert drought: 520 days, 12,480 hours, 16 months “but it’s felt like 16 years.” They heralded the fact that everyone was there together as a cause for celebration, a victory over pandemic despair. 

“You allowed yourself to be optimistic!” he exclaimed in congratulation. 

But when I tweeted out a photo of the audience, which looked a lot like a packed concert crowd from the before-times, people tweeted back with concern. “Be safe,” they said. “Don’t die.”

The crowd at Arkells Long Weekend at Budweiser Stage.
Samuel Engelking

The new “SARSstock”?

Arkells and Live Nation seem to be promoting the concerts as a version of SARSstock, the massive 2003 Rolling Stones-headlined concert that heralded Toronto’s return to normalcy following widespread worry of a contagious virus. Gathering so many fans in one place was treated as proof that we could go back to our old lives and celebrate together. 

But, even with widespread vaccination, COVID probably won’t have one symbolic end point we can easily point back at in 18 years. It’s something we’re going to be living with for years, and our post-lockdown return to old rituals like concerts and sports and dining out will inevitably be accompanied by some amount of personal negotiation around what feels comfortable and safe for yourself and others. 

The entrance to Budweiser Stage
Samuel Engelking

Unfortunately for the band, Arkells Long Weekend was timed right with what Canadian public health experts are calling the fourth wave. Cases are rising again as the Delta variant surges. In the United States, where concerts have been back many months before here, there’s a debate again in music communities about safety around concerts. Some acts, like country singer/songwriter Jason Isbell, are choosing to only play shows in venues that require proof of vaccination. 

Knowing everyone there was vaccinated would have put me more at ease, but Doug Ford is still against “vaccine passports” in Ontario (though he has started to soften his stance recently). There were other safety measures. Tickets, food and merch sales were all cashless, there were Clorox wipes everywhere (handed out with the Arkells No Frills-branded rally towels) and masks were mandatory at all times “unless consuming food and beverage.” 

Mask rules and COVID screening at Budweiser Stage
Samuel Engelking

Of course, as anyone who’s watched sports in the last few months knows, that loophole essentially translates to “wear your mask or don’t.” Compared to a lot of those crowd shots I’ve seen and baseball and basketball games, the Arkells audience was actually pretty good about it, but that still translated to about 50 per cent mask use if I’m being generous. 

It didn’t seem like the seats were spaced out in any noticeable way either, and there were none of the crowd control measures we’d been told to expect when concerts eventually returned: staggered entrances and exits, extra bathrooms, etc. Disturbingly, I still saw people resting open plastic cups of beer on top of urinals and not washing their hands before they left. (Sorry for all the bathroom talk, but this is what a pandemic review looks like.)

Still, after 16 months without concerts, it was easy to focus on the things I’d missed about concerts: showing up early and having a drink with a friend, overhearing conversations about CFL football, gauging what the most popular merch is (there were yellow Arkells bucket hats everywhere). Hell, I’ve never been so grateful to be drinking a can of beer that costs $13.25. 

Haviah Mighty opening for Arkells at Budweiser Stage
Samuel Engelking

Haviah Mighty delivered a fantastic opening set

Haviah Mighty got the coveted opening slot and she took full advantage. The Polaris and Prism Prize-winning Toronto rapper was supposed to go on tour with Arkells before COVID changed their plans, but this was a good concession prize: her first time playing an amphitheatre. With her DJ, dancers and a guest spot from her sister Omega Mighty, she brought a deep well of energy and charisma. 

She’s a fantastic live MC, able to rap at full speed without a backing track, but she’s also extremely versatile. She sings, she dances, she flits between conscious hip-hop (she introduced Protest, a song inspired by the murder of George Floyd, by having the crowd raise their fists), chest-puffing, R&B, reggae and even flamenco.

Mighty was subject to another Toronto concert ritual that quickly returned: opening band-itis. The audience was still filtering in while she was playing and mostly stayed seated, but they were still receptive – especially the folks on the floor in front of the stage. 

That was actually the most comfortable I felt all night, with plenty of personal bubble space. The show was originally going to be at lower capacity, but the tickets went on sale the day we entered Step 3 and capacity could increase. Venue owners and concert promoters have been talking about the need for decent capacities for profit margins to work, but from a selfish standpoint it would have been nice to experience a show like this at something closer to 50 per cent.

By the time Arkells hit the stage, the venue filled up and, even though it was outdoors where transmission risk is lower, I still felt like I had gone right into the deep end.

Arkells at Budweiser Stage
Samuel Engelking

Rafter-reaching populism

The crowd were on their feet and loving it from the second the band launched into their first song, Years In The Making. Arkells are built for an occasion like this. They have a deep well of anthemic songs meant to be song with your arms around each other (he said to put your arms around the person you came with), sentimental ballads and soul-influenced showmanship.

In addition to the five members of the band, there were also a trio of backup singers and a hot four-piece horn section called Northern Soul Horns. They can do tightly-wound Constantines-influenced indie rock (older hit Oh, The Boss Is Coming was a crowd-pleaser) and Springsteen-style rafter-reaching populism, getting everyone to reach for the ceiling.

Samuel Engelking

They had plenty of tricks up their sleeve for the occasion. They came with a set of “rules,” including “you must sing and dance” and “be good to each other” and returned to them throughout the night (i.e. “remember rule number two!”). They played snippets of Beatles songs, like With A Little Help From My Friends. At one point, they brought up a couple named Brianna and Chelsea who’d used an Arkells song, And Then Some, as their pandemic wedding song, and gave them the chance to celebrate with an group. They played it for them live while they slow danced. 

At another point, they brought up doctors Raj Grewal and Anju Anand, two Brampton doctors who work for This Is Our Shot, a group that aims to combat vaccine hesitancy and get people their jabs. He called frontline workers “the biggest rock stars” – and yes, using “rock star” unironically is a bit eye-rolling, but it got a good pop from the crowd. Later, Kerman joked that the side effects of the vaccine include getting really good at playing the piano, and administered a giant novelty shot to the keyboardist. “Nine of 10 doctors agree that the best cure for the coronavirus is dancing your face off,” Kerman joked, giving me a little involuntary cringe. “And the other couldn’t get tickets.”

Max Kerman of Arkells at Budweiser Stage
Samuel Engelking

At another point, he asked for a show of hands of people who’ve been vaccinated and congratulated the crowd that it’s almost 100. I’m a bit skeptical that’s the number. For all the band’s liberal messaging (a rainbow-coloured Canadian flag was draped around at least two Arkell shoulders), they have a centrist appeal, their songs soundtracking Hockey Night In Canada montages and playing on acoustic guitars at Muskoka docks. They’re the band that’s been chosen by the Canadian music industry to be ubiquitous whether you like it or not, and it’s hard not to imagine with such a wide-reaching appeal there wouldn’t be some anti-vaxxers, or at least hesitant people. That thought crossed my mind when I saw a family with their under-12 children, a demographic that can’t yet be vaccinated. 

Sometimes, Arkells’ gangly earnest positivity and working class cosplay can make you roll your eyes a little. They’re an easy band to make fun of, and you’ll find plenty of people doing just that (do a quick Arkells search on Twitter). At times, Kerman reminds me of a Bar Mitzvah DJ coaxing grandma onto the dance floor for one last song. But his extreme positivity has a wear-down effect, and seeing so many people unselfconsciously belt along with a track like 11:11 did a good job of melting my cynicism. 

By the time the band brought back Haviah Mighty and her crew to join them for a cover Robyn’s Dancing On My Own – a perfectly chosen song about dancing away your loneliness and melancholy – I felt that feeling I’ve been missing: the ineffable spark of music that you can’t fully access alone in your apartment, or even at every concert. It’s a fleeting thing, and you might have to take some risks to get there. 

I tried to remind myself of that minutes later as I was anxiously navigating my way through a bottleneck of people trying to exit the venue at the same time. That’s going to take some getting used to.


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