Home > Music, Reviews > Arkells at the CNE: A Joyous Elegy for Summer

Arkells at the CNE: A Joyous Elegy for Summer

The prevailing theme of Arkells’ Wednesday night show at the Canadian National Exhibition’s bandshell proved to be the end of the summer, an appropriate match for the Hamilton, Ontario band’s lighters-aloft (or smartphones-with-lighter-apps-aloft) rock songs about campfire romances (“Kiss Cam”), roadtrips along provincial highways (“Where U Goin”) and even sun-soaked South American dictators (“The Ballad of Hugo Chavez”). Enthusiastic frontman Max Kerman, resplendent in his neo-classic-rocker uniform of sweat-soaked leather jacket and vintage-looking Star Wars t-shirt, bantered extensively with the youngish crowd on the passing of seasons. He asked them if they’d quit their summer jobs yet, if they’d purchased their school supplies, and how many were returning to high school or to college. It was enough to make the rare post-university-age attendees going to work the next morning feel a bit out of place, but he did stick admirably to the point.


Beyond summertime’s imminent demise for another sun-cycle (marked particularly by a mid-song crooning of Carly Rae Jepsen summer pop anthem “Call Me Maybe” prefaced by Kerman’s hope that the ubiquitous song will be put to bed for good), the point being stuck to by Arkells on this night was a laudable commitment to the old-fashioned collective experience of popular rock and roll. If the prominence of this sort of experience (in the rock genre at least) has declined amongst the youth of the current generation in the U.S., it has endured in the UK and especially in Canada, which a rock-centric cultural imperialist might well interpret as sure evidence of the superior development of those cultures when compared to the American one.

The reigning Juno winners for national Group of the Year cling tightly to the merits of the collective experience, and their leader Kerman openly encouraged the audience to participate in it. With his understated 1950s-rockabilly-style hairdo bobbing with the beat, he led the crowd in mass singalongs (“Agent Zero”), give-and-take chants (the “punching in / punching out” dichotomy from the labour anthem “Oh, The Boss is Coming!”), and rhythmic handclaps all around. There was even a boppy cover of Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams”, the vocals shared between Kerman and electro-pop artist Lights, during the encore. Whatever one might think of collective experience strived for in concerts (and it’s not everyone’s bag, for certain), it’s hard t0 argue that Arkells don’t accomplish it as well as any working band in the country today.

But there is a finer balance to the band’s affect. They straddle the opposing footholds of wider audience appeal and intelligent, indie-derived specificity very athletically, a balancing act most reminiscent of an obvious Arkells influence, the Tragically Hip (who get a witty namecheck in the opening couplet of “Kiss Cam”, referencing their music’s ubiquity at Ontarian outdoor parties). Kerman has little of Gord Downie’s literary particularity, but both songwriters often focus on political and cultural ideas as well as on the intimate complications of personal relations. Kerman keys on subjects of interest to the 20-something male progressive, comparing himself to iconic 1960s rock stars (“John Lennon”, which closed the encore), celebrating rebels and outlaws (the aforementioned “Chavez”, evident US Army leaker Bradley Manning tribute “Whistleblower”), and narrativizing the thorny class identity schisms inherent to leftist social action (“No Champagne Socialist”, which did not make an appearance in the setlist, sadly). These themes deepen and broaden Arkells’ music, which is deceptively simple in its anthemic proportions that conceal complexly interwoven rock arrangements.

But in the flattened-out mass engagement arena of live concerts, Arkells sacrifice some measure of these distinctions for the comforting embrace of the collective rock experience. Even if something is lost in the live process, this is not an inherently bad thing, exactly; Arkells put on a stronger rock show than most, and it’s no stretch to imagine their appeal growing in symbiotic harmony with the scope of their art. My 30-year-old self was impressed and entertained by them last night, even if my 20-year-old self would have been even more so. But then bidding each summer a bittersweet farewell is trait of the young, and their sensibilities are no longer entirely my own. But an impassioned elegy for the warmest season is still worth appreciating, no matter one’s age, and Arkells provided that well enough.

Categories: Music, Reviews
  1. Mike Kerman
    September 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Your review of the Arkells at the CNE was the most astute, perceptive and best written piece on the Arkells that I’ve seen. Your nailed all the right points: the younger-than-usual audience, the way Max engages the audience for a collective rock experience. the songwriting which takes on social criticismin Chavez and the Whistleblower along performing gold ol’ and new rock like Hall and Oates, the bittersweet tinge of the end of summer and even the hairdo. I was there too. enjoying the show, though watching the screen and the crowd from way back. I appreciated your iinsightful blog for several reasons. I’m an old rock critic (though no longer) and have a special affection for the music, which I think I would love…even if I wasn’t Max’s Dad.

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