“You could be anywhere in the world, but you’re here with us.”
“This is pretty special, we don’t get to do this too often,” smiled a white dinner jacket-clad Max Kerman from the stage of the inaugural Toronto Urban Roots Festival (TURF) on Friday night. Playing their upbeat rock repertoire to a muggy crowd of hundreds wasn’t what the captivating Arkells front man meant. Having the chance to top off their set at the city’s hottest new 4-night outdoor festival with a full Motown revue was likely what he was talking about.
I have to say that, as easily one of my favourite bands, I’ve seen Arkells too many times to count. But I’ve never seen a show like this one.
The beloved Hamilton crew are known for the exuberant spin on traditional alt-rock and have crafted unlikely covers in the past (“You Make my Dreams Come True” and “Ms. Jackson”, to name a few) – something that’s become an anticipatory treat in their infectious sets. But, in finishing their crop of originals before performing two handfuls of Motown classics to an almost-hometown-crowd (which quite obviously was comprised of throngs of Hamilton faithfuls who happily made the GO Train ride in) – the old soul quintet threw one of the best parties this Toronto summer has seen.
Formed in the Hammer in 2006, the five bandmates quickly made a name for themselves (not Arkells, derived from Arkell Street where they lived) as a promising young bunch of storytellers who, like many other Canadian greats, wouldn’t hesitate to tell honest rock tales – ones that mentioned names, dates and places the friends had experienced together. This open book kind of songwriting led to their (again) Hamilton-referenced first album Jackson Square – an impressive collection of anthemic stories that nabbed them Best New Group at the 2010 Junos, Group of the Year at the 2012 Junos and tours with Sam Roberts, Billy Talent and The Tragically Hip.
On Friday, a suffocatingly humid night after the day’s rainfall, the famously energetic five brought every bit of groove to the field under the skyline – hopping all over the stage to their own dozen addictive hits from Jackson Square and 2011’s Michigan Left – notably scorching performances of the electric “Oh, The Boss is Coming” and “Deadlines,” as well as singalongs “Kiss Cam,” “John Lennon” and “Ballad of Hugo Chavez.”
After the crowd pleasers, the band re-emerged from backstage donning white jackets, armed with members of Dwayne Gretzky – ready to play a whole other kind of crowd pleasers, in the form of Motown classic covers. While Kerman snapped and stomped across stage, set alight with colourful flashes and the honk of the saxophone, crowd members swayed and embraced at zippity soul hits from the Big Chill Soundtrack, The Supremes and Temptations.
While the rest of the inaugural TURF Toronto was a confusingly perfect blend of roots, blues, folk and more – featuring the likes of She & Him, Belle and Sebastian and Kurt Vile – Canada’s darling Arkells kicked off the city’s weekend with probably the most pleasing, and natural, blend of all: new and old soul that felt all kinds of made for each other.
If you haven’t, it’s about time you saw Arkells Live. They’ll be at HOPE Volleyball this weekend for all you Ottawa folks (writhing with jealousy)! Here are some goodies: