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Review: Arkells at ULU

The Canadian rock band, solo gigging, and why the music community is what makes a night

I have to admit, there was a part of me that considered staying home on 25th July and not going to the Arkells gig at ULU, London. It was the hottest day in 150 years, I was going solo, and I’d spend far too much time day drinking, and far too little time sleeping over the past week. Even though gigs are my favourite places to be, I knew it would be a sweaty one, and I could only pray that the venue had air conditioning. But at 6pm I dragged myself onto the Oxford Tube (complete with Tesco meal deal) and headed on down to London. My god am I glad I did.

A bit about Arkells. They’re an alt rock band from Ontario: lots of energy, charisma and sound, and a phenomenal stage presence characterize them. Fairly big in Canada, they only really broke onto the UK scene last year supporting Frank Turner as he toured around the country. I first saw them at Oxford O2, 5th May, and once they started playing, I didn’t want them to stop – and considering that Turner is my favourite artist this is pretty high praise. The entire band quite clearly adore performing, especially front-man Max Kerman who really captures the attention of the crowd with a combination of startling magnetism and smooth dancing. I spent the whole of Trinity that year listening to their latest two albums, High Noon (2014) and Morning Report (2016) on repeat, and by the time they dropped their latest, Rally Cry in October 2018, I was a solid fan.

But back to the gig. It was, as anticipated, incredibly sweaty (although they did have air con), but I have to say that I don’t think anybody cared. For the entirety of their nearly two hour set the crowd was having a brilliant time, dancing, as Kerman instructed us to, like nobody was watching. Arkells are unusual in that they have no stand-out hit, but many equally well-loved tracks: my person favourites are ‘Leather Jacket’, ‘And Then Some’ and “Private School Kids’, but there are just too many to pick. Their old pal Frank Turner was enjoying the gig with the rest of the crowd, and everyone there, many of whom know of the Arkells for the same reason that I do, went wild when he came onto the stage at the end to do a duet of Proud Mary, along with Jess Guise, his fiancé and the support act, amongst others.

Yet there are a lot of really good rock bands out there, so what is it that makes Arkells so special? Part of it is the aforementioned charisma, but the also the commitment to being genuinely good people, and using their platform and music to help other people. The band has thrown their support behind Rainbow Railroad, a charity dedicated to helping LGBTQ youth who are forced to leave home, by auctioning off signed Doc Martens, and raising awareness across their social media platforms. Indeed, the most special part of the gig was when Kerman jumped into the crowd to serenade two women who were getting married the week after and were planning on having their first dance to an Arkells song. This kind of personal support and care make them stand out from the usual indie bands that can be found across the world. It’s easy to see how the band have slotted into the same music community that artists like Turner, Felix Hagan and the Family, Laura Marling and others are part of. Their fans aren’t just encouraged to support their music, but to look out for other people at the gigs and beyond. 

Indeed, if you were planning on going to a gig solo, Arkells would be one that I definitely recommend. I ended up running into two people I knew from previous gigs and making several new friends just from the people who were standing around me. I’ve been to a hell of a lot of gigs, but this was perhaps the one with the strongest sense of community, and feeling safe and relaxed makes every experience so much better. Overall, this was one of the best gigs of my life, and I don’t say that lightly. Although Arkells tour primarily in North America, they’ll certainly be back in the UK in 2020, and I would encourage you all to listen to them. All I can say is that none of the friends I’ve persuaded to check them out have regretted it yet…

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