Hi. It’s been a while, and for that you have my apologies. But don’t worry, I haven’t been idle. I’m not gonna give you a full recap of everything I’ve been up to since June though (at least, not today). Rather, I want to talk about last weekend, where so many good memories were made, I can hardly stand it.
I grew up in the shadow of Philadelphia, across the Delaware River in the Jersey suburbs. Philly’s become my adopted city, despite actually living closer to Baltimore now, and part of the reason for that are the concerts. There’s never a lack of good artists playing at one of the dozens of venues across the city. But what might be the crown jewel of the Philly music scene takes place outside the city limits and a bit closer to my hometown. WXPN, the local listener supported radio station, hosts the three-day Xponential Festival on the waterfront in Camden every summer. XPN, if you hadn’t heard of it, is a music lover’s dream. They play the good stuff, the eclectic stuff, the underground stuff, the stuff no popular station would touch with a ten-foot pole. They play JD McPherson, they play Elbow, they play Lucius. They provide a platform for musicians who would otherwise toil in obscurity. And XPN Fest is the perfect showcase for all of this ridiculous, abundant talent.
I went to XPN Fest for the first time two years ago, when JD played there. My family and I only went for the day, but the laid-back vibe coupled with a stellar lineup was enticing and I told myself that the next time I went, it would be for the whole weekend. I couldn’t attend last year because of conflicting plans, but when I saw the lineup for this year, I made sure to clear my schedule. Among all of those insanely good bands were two of my favorites: Dave Hause and the Mermaid, and the Arkells. You already know the story of how I found Dave, so I’ll save my recap of his set (as well as the secret show featuring a mysterious band called Barry, Me, and Phil E.) for another day. Today, it’s all about the Canadians with the great hair and infectious, neo-’80 pop-rock-soul tunes.
This is going to come as a shock, so brace yourselves – I first became aware of the Arkells at a Frank Turner show. I know! Who’d’ve thought?? They opened for him on his extensive tour last fall and winter (you remember, the tour where I traveled across the entire northeast and even flew to Chicago). So had I not fallen head over heels for them, after seeing them that many times, I still would have become passingly familiar with their music. As it was though, they’re one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen, with a catalog of fantastic, catchy, kickass songs. So over the course of four months I went from not having a clue who they even were to calling myself, in their parlance, an “Arkellian”.
The very first time I saw them was in Morgantown, West Virginia. I felt dreadful that night – I had a horrible stomachache, a splitting headache, my back hurt badly from sitting for five straight hours on the drive there and then standing for five straight hours at the venue, and then I almost lost hearing in one ear because of how loud the show was. It was going to take a lot to make me forget how uncomfortable I was. But when they came on the stage, the second of two openers, and broke into the first notes of a song about how the rain wasn’t going to bring them down, the lead singer hopping over the barrier and right into the middle of the crowd, none of that physical discomfort mattered. I was utterly transfixed, and stayed that way the entire set. I didn’t know a single word, but I sang along. Forgetting all about my back, I danced. The energy they (especially the lead singer) brought to the stage was matched only by…well, by the band headlining that night. Despite the difference in their sounds, FT & TSS and the Arkells turned out to be the perfect complement to each other. Which was a good thing, considering how many times over the next few months I would get to see that pairing.
The Halloween show in Wilmington, Delaware, stands out as a particular favorite, when the Arkells came out dressed as none other than Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls. But really, every performance was just as much fun as the one before it. The lyrics began sticking and soon I could really sing along (not just participate in the “dowwwwwwn” part of “A Little Rain”, their opening song). At one of the shows, I bought their new CD and played it nonstop while driving to the next venue. And when I flew to Chicago for Frank and the Souls’ two-night stint there, it wasn’t my favorite Englishmen I played on my iPod on the flights to and fro – it was my newfound favorite Canadians. That run (for me) culminated in Frank’s arena show in Boston in February, and I’ve waited (rather impatiently) for them to come around again. After five months, they finally did last weekend for XPN Fest.
I need to add too that in their home country, the Arkells are huge. Like selling-out-stadiums level huge. They’ve been making music and putting out albums for over ten years. And until October, I’d never heard of them. Now, I’m probably not the best example to use for breadth of musical knowledge (since mine is pretty shallow), but I also know I’m not alone in not ever having heard these guys. And I’m dumbfounded by that. What they do is so compulsively listenable, the sort of thing that sticks in your head for days on end, that you can’t stop thinking about, that you want to play on a loop. Maybe it’s the way they can’t be pigeonholed into one genre that makes it easy for radio stations to ignore them; maybe it’s the amount of cussing they do; maybe it’s the political nature of a lot of their songs. Whatever it is, it’s a damned shame. I’m proud that they have an advocate in XPN (maybe due to the influence of Talia Schlanger, who used to be a Toronto-based broadcaster, coming to Philly to take over David Dye’s responsibilities at World Café). Their introduction to the Philly crowd happened the afternoon of their show with Frank at the Fillmore in January, when they played a Free at Noon set at World Café Live. I was ecstatic to find that XPN had asked them to play the festival too.
Despite the ease with which they win over their crowds, they had an uphill battle the day of their XPN Fest appearance. The weather forecasters suddenly decided that, after calling for good weather all week, there was going to be monsoon level rain that weekend, starting right when the Arkells would have been taking the stage. The performance schedule for the festival was adjusted to accommodate the impending rain, and their set was moved up about three hours to the middle of the afternoon, right when the gates were originally supposed to open. The changes were announced the night before and had to impact the amount of people who came the first day – I’m sure some didn’t realize that there had been changes and others probably bagged it all together, thinking the day was going to be a washout. But the good (and bad) thing was, it wasn’t. It was a typical sweltering day in south Jersey in the summer, but it didn’t rain, not until the evening. And when the Arkells started their set with the usual “A Little Rain” in front of a smaller-than-it-should-have-been audience, the lead singer (whose name, I’d long since learned, was Max) made sure to dedicate it to the local meteorologists.
Except when Max went for his usual amble around the crowd, I didn’t take my attention off the stage while they played (if you’ve seen them, you understand), but I could tell that the audience behind me (I was in the front. Of course) lost its reticence almost immediately. That’s the usual reaction to these guys – skepticism quickly turned to acceptance and then to exuberance. You just can’t not have fun watching and listening to them; your toes start tapping, your head starts bobbing, your hips start swaying, and the next thing you know, you, and everyone around you, are dancing. Max is one of the most engaging front men I’ve ever seen, and the rest of the band’s (Anthony on keys, Nick on bass, Tim on drums and Mike on guitar) obvious enjoyment is infectious. And have I mentioned how damned catchy the music is? Festival sets are always necessarily, regrettably short, but they managed to squeeze in a lot of my favorites and to turn me on to songs I hadn’t really cared for in the past (“Come To Light” anyone?). And the addition of a brass section meant that they could play “Knocking at the Door”, a new tune that just might be their best yet. The audience was wide-eyed, slack-jawed, and cheering wildly by the time they walked off the stage. They were, without question, the best performance of the day. And they weren’t done with us yet.
One of the vendors had brought a little Airstream trailer that opened up to become a small stage, and it was announced that the Arkells would do an acoustic set after the performances at the Marina Stage had wrapped up. So while most of the festival-goers made their way to the venue where the headliners would play that night, a small contingent of the converted and the curious hung around and were treated to stripped-down versions of “Drake’s Dad”, “A Little Rain”, and “Knocking on the Door”. And afterwards the band members who’d played (Max, Tony and Mike) hung around to chat. It occurred to me then how damned lucky those of us in attendance were – knowing how popular they are at home, I don’t know if our Canadian counterparts have the same access to their homegrown superstars like we did that afternoon.
And this is why I’m making the seven-hour trek up to the little town of Lewiston, New York, in a few weeks to see them. Being as close to Hamilton, Ontario, as it is, the show at Artpark is practically a homecoming for them. And as much as I love the intimacy of their shows here in the mid-Atlantic, where they’re still unknown, I want to see them as all of Canada sees them. I want to be surrounded by people who know and love their songs as much as I do. I want to see them headline. Because if they’re that dynamic on a small scale, I can’t even imagine how good they’ll be on a big stage.
(And that was just the first day of XPN Fest. Day Two was just as good. Stay tuned!)
Arkells are: Max Kerman, Anthony Carone, Nick Dika, Tim Oxford, Mike DeAngelis