The evening of Sunday Feb. 17 a homecoming of sorts took place in downtown Hamilton. 227 people eagerly flooded into This Ain’t Hollywood to see Arkells play their first hometown show in over a year. The show was a secret one only announced on Friday morning, and proceeds benefited Boys and Girls Clubs of Hamilton. It was sweaty, loud and passionate show – everything the band has come to be known for.
The show was dubbed “a celebration of downtown Hamilton,” and as such, tickets were only available in hard-copy from downtown icons Dr. Disc and Cheapies Records. As if there was any doubt in the show’s buzz, it sold out in less than 15 minutes. Thanks to a break in classes, a spur-of-the-moment decision and a dash across Main to catch a bus, I managed to get my hands on two of them.
New Hands, young natives of – you guessed it – Hamilton, were chosen to warm up the crowd just after 10 p.m. Their new-wave indie-rock goodness got plenty of heads bobbing and rightfully garnered some new fans. Midway through their set, vocalist Spence Newell asked, “So who’s excited to see Charlemagne?”, eliciting a few cheers and laughs from fans who knew Arkells’ former moniker back from their McMaster days.
The headliners were introduced by the amiable venue owner Lou Mollinaro, with a short story about booking Charlemagne when they were just a fledgling quintet. Mike, Max, Nick, Tim and Anthony followed to take the stage to overwhelming cheers. Here was a band who, just four days prior, had opened for Canadian heavyweights The Tragically Hip at a sold out ACC, playing to 13,000 people. After the show frontman Max Kerman told me what the change in audience was like: “tonight was much more fun. And more sweaty, too.”
They got right to it: launching into “Tragic Flaw,” a song that has been around since their Deadlines EP, followed by the infectiously-cheerful “Michigan Left” and 19 other songs that spanned almost their entire catalogue. The band’s raw, energetic, soulful sound was proudly and loudly exhibited.
Picking highlights for a show that cemented itself as the best you’ve ever been to is difficult, but my standouts are: “Abigail” (and its necessary ode to the Jackson Square food court), “Oh, the Boss is Coming!”, “Ticats Are Hummin’”, “Where You Goin’” and a cover of the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”. Max constantly exhibited his impressive stage presence, talked about the HSR and sung a verse of “Whistleblower” with me.
The show’s encore saw New Hands and some venue staff on stage for two covers; the crowd-pleasing, dance-inducing “Book Club”, where the audience contested Max for the loudest singing of its retrospective lyrics and Hamilton name-drop; and lastly a send-off with John Lennon, an ode to nights at McMaster and living in Westdale, among other things.
The audience danced through the entire set. The sober people sang, the drunk people sang, and genuine smiles flashed across the faces of the five as they played their hearts out.
It all started not so long ago. Arkells met through a collective love of music and an ambitious dream to make it their jobs. They got kicked out of the basement of Woodstock for jamming too loudly. They lived in student houses. They took courses, wrote papers and did and didn’t go to class. They named themselves after the Westdale street where a couple of them lived and rehearsed. They devoted endless hours to their craft and weathered the early struggles it brought. A change of keyboardist didn’t slow their momentum. Today it seems they’ve figured out what works: talking to fans after shows, sending out signed postcards at Christmas, interacting through social media, releasing surprise recordings and collaborations.
Arkells have had quite an evolution since the 2006 McMaster Campus Music Explosion. Guitarist Mike DeAngelis explained his initial hopes for the band: “I didn’t have big expectations at first. Back then I just wanted to open for another band at the Casbah, that’s it. When Max called me and told me we got a spot doing that, I couldn’t believe it. I thought I couldn’t do it.”
Even with their seemingly-endless tour schedule which has brought them across continents and a fan base that has quickly multiplied, Arkells are always quick to acknowledge their humble roots and be grateful for where they’ve risen to. They have proudly taken on the role of Hamilton’s rock ambassadors while hitting new stages and crafting new material. Even though each is originally from another city, the band was born in Hamilton, and they’ll undoubtedly continue to tell that to the world. Their tenacity and ambition has garnered them their deserving success, past, present and future. If you weren’t aware of it yet, the future of this band is definitely something to watch.