The FirstOntario Centre was nearly packed to the brim with restless Arkells fans; some who’d been waiting months to see the Canadian quintet play their hometown. This wasn’t my first rodeo with this specific line-up, I had similarly seen the Arkells open up for Frank Turner in the states just a few months prior, but for some reason - this felt different. I knew looking out onto the room of thousands that this night would be special. Something everyone who took part would remember for a very long time.
The show began with a dim of the lights; darkness consuming the crowd of thousands as the intro music began to blare through the arena speakers. Chattering here and there, the room silenced for a moment until the Sleeping Souls (Ben Lloyd (guitar), Matt Nasir (keyboard), Nigel Powell (drums), and Tarrant Anderson (bass)) strutted on stage, followed shortly after by Frank Turner himself. The crowd roared in excitement, more than prepared for the night to begin. Though, as with many shows, the serenity of the night couldn’t have possibly been predicted. The adrenaline was instantaneous as Frank began playing his first song, ‘I Still Believe’ (off of his 2010 EP Rock & Roll), throwing the crowd into a fit of dance-filled emotion. As he strummed the acoustic in his hands, he jumped up and down, filling the room with an indescribable energy. Though not everyone knew the words, it felt as if the whole crowd was jamming along to the folk tunes of Frank Turner and experiencing the UK native for all that he was.
Playing songs from the likes of Positive Songs for Negative People (2016) and Tape Deck Heart (2013), the effervescent singer made his presence more than known; easily holding us fixated as he bounced around the stage, and was even joined by Max Kerman (vocals for the Arkells) for a small portion of a song. Though, really, no one could’ve asked for a better back up band with the Sleeping Souls. Similar to Frank’s, their energy and genuine love for music was something that was clear in their eyes as they looked out upon the large crowd. These were the moments that I hope made their lives feel surreal. With a bit of banter of past shows and joking about a rivalry between this town and the last, the Brit continued to encapsulate the crowd with his folk sound, smashing out ‘Get Better’ from his newest album, closing with ‘Four Simple Words’ from his 2012 release, Last Minutes & Lost Evenings. If anyone inside that room wasn’t a fan of Frank’s by then, there must’ve been a mistake. Between his eccentric stage presence and catchy, yet meaningful folk jams, Frank Turner should have made tons of fans that night; for even I had fallen for him a bit more than the last time.
The kick drum came to a halt, leaving the room in a momentary silence before the concert go-ers began busting on about the musical schooling Frank had just given us all. Though if you’d been there, you could feel the anticipation for the Arkells silently rising in the air. With a twenty-six song setlist, and tons of fun ahead of us all, I wasn’t sure anyone could prepare themselves for the utter appreciation we were all about to feel for music, and for the Arkells. The pre-set music set a silence across the room, earning cheers from the crowd as they anxiously awaited the arrival of their hometown heroes. Hometown shows are always special, but there was something special about being in Hamilton. The band was so inexplicably proud of their roots and the city was as equally as proud to have them. The love I witnessed, shared between fan and artist, was rare at best and I felt lucky to have taken part in that as anyone should’ve.
The act began with a bang, the band (Nick Dika (bass), Mike DiAngelis (guitar), Tim Oxford (drums), Max Kerman (vocals/guitar), and Anthony Carone (keyboard)) arrived on stage with a small trio of brass instruments and some background singers, and the crowd shrieked with excitement, the anticipation having clearly built up to a nearly unbearable point. Approaching their instruments, the quintet began to play a song off their most recent release, Morning Report, ‘A Little Rain (A Song for Pete)’. The ever exuberant vocalist, Max Kerman, was almost immediately running around the stage and exciting those who had just tagged along to accompany their friends, children, or significant others. That was the thing about being at an Arkells show: it seemed like there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t having fun. Max made sure of that as he dived into the crowd for a bit of one-on-one interaction with the adoring fans; a very electrifying way to start the show. The elation hung on the faces of those in the crowd and on the stage as the band continued with songs old and new, a perfect mix of thrill and nostalgia.
After performing songs such as ‘Passenger Seat’ (Morning Report) and ‘11:11’ (High Noon), the boys took it down a few steps and began an acoustic huddle in the middle of the stage. Asking everyone to take their cellphones out, the arena lit up. The feeling in the air was pure magic. Nothing could compare to singing along with ten thousand people in a room mostly illuminated by cellphone screens with the brightness turned up to a max. With the chords of an acoustic ringing throughout, I watched as people swayed with strangers they’d never met and old friends they’d known forever. This was an example of what music can do if I’d ever seen one. Solid proof that people from anywhere may only share one common ground, but feel a sense of belonging that can’t be found anywhere else. Shortly after the lights flickered back on, Max invited Frank Turner back to the stage for some fun banter and a few short covers of motown songs, continuing to deem him a “doctor of rock and roll”.
The setlist continued with songs off their second album, Michigan Left, as well as more tunes of Morning Report; including their most recent single, ‘My Heart’s Always Yours’. As that song rang through the room, it was further proven that the love shared between this band and its hometown was unlike anything I’ve experienced before. There was something tangible in the air. Something I don’t think any of us could describe even if we’d wanted to. Max went on to talk about just how much his hometown had meant to him, and how easily honored they were to hail from Hamilton, ON. Coming from someone who had never been there before that moment, I felt that admiration that was shared between the ten thousand people that filled the arena. Whether it was bringing fans on stage to play guitar, or dance along, I felt the love the Arkells had for their hometown and loved them back as if I’d come from there myself.
Putting the sappiness behind them, the band began to play ‘Dirty Blonde’ (High Noon), and encouraged all the fans to dance as if no one was watching. I’d been to many shows where being yourself was encouraged. Dance like no one’s watching. And they made it so no one could. In a pitch black room, fans of the Arkells got the chance to let out all their energy to some sweet jams as the concert was nearing a bittersweet end. Inviting Frank Turner, accompanied by the Sleeping Souls this time around, both bands rocked their heads off to the second single from Morning Report, ‘Private School’. Nothing like blowing off steam with thousands of others screaming “ah, fuck off” as the lyrics entail. With that, the band disappeared for a short moment, a much needed encore following very shortly after.
Max appeared on stage with nothing but his acoustic at first, jamming out a rendition of ‘Whistleblower' (Michigan Left) and was later joined by the band to bust out ‘Cynical Bastards’ (High Noon). Hyping it up one last time, the band closed with their infamous song, ‘Leather Jacket’ (High Noon), to which two fans graciously threw their leather jackets on stage at Max, and left the crowd with no breath in their lungs. There was one last extended thank you, to just about everyone who had ever done anything for them or their hometown, and suddenly - it was over with. The biggest hometown show the Arkells had ever played, and I got to take part. In a way, it broke my heart, but I left that arena with not only a sense of love and belonging, but with a night’s worth of memories I knew would stick with me. Out of breath myself, I walked into the chilly Ontario air and inhaled deeply. I hoped that feeling would never end.