Arkells light up Toronto’s Budweiser Stage with a defiant, revue-style performance in the city’s return to large-scale live music

Arkells and Haviah Mighty at Budweiser Stage

COVID-19, be damned!

If there was a symbolic moment during the Arkells’ first concert of three at Budweiser Stage Friday night, it occurred during a boisterous version of “Private School,” when opening act Haviah Mighty joined singer Max Kerman onstage toward the end of the band’s two-hour set.

You bore witness to the provocative hilarity of the gold-jacketed Mighty, who had styled her hair with three crimson buns, so when she turned her head sideways, her cranium seemed to resemble the coronavirus.

And then you had the dynamic and athletic Kerman, going for broke as he and the other 11 members of his extended band were dancing like maniacs and tearing up the joint musically, buoyed by the cheers of 10,000 people who were probably watching and hearing their first in-person, big-ticket rock concert in well over a year.

It was a firm extended middle finger to the pandemic, a defiant celebration of a returning to form that had been stolen from everyone without warning, with those on the stage confidently stating, “Throw us your worst; we will never surrender.”

The crowd was certainly ripe for rebellion: mere moments after Kerman and his five comrades took to the stage with the four-piece Northern Soul Orchestra and the trio of female backing singers known as the Arkettes, a chorus of voices rose to the call-and-response drama of the show opener “Years in the Making” from the band’s about-to-be released “Blink Once” album.

The audience rose to their feet as well and sang even louder to “Leather Jacket,” no small feat considering the high-volume bombardment of electronics, horns, Tim Oxford’s driving beats and vocals being lofted at them from the stage, aided visually by a hefty light show that screamed “rock ’n’ roll” in wattage alone.

Because the sonic mix was often so overwhelming, nuance often disappeared and licks by certain musicians were lost in the process. But considering this is the Arkells’ first show in a long time, a little tech rustiness can be forgiven.

It certainly didn’t sabotage any of the momentum or euphoria experienced during the evening, although, truth be told, the Arkells’ Long Weekend was more revue than rock ’n’ roll show. Simple but supple choreography by the Northern Soul Horns and the Arkettes perfectly complemented the likeable Kerman’s charismatic showmanship, as he worked every part of the stage while delivering the goods on such songs as the funky “People’s Champ” and the ebullient “Only for a Moment.”

An Arkells show is also about community and the band, led by Kerman, pulled a number of poignant moments out of its hat. The first came midway through “All Roads” when Kerman brought up the campaign directors of It’s Your Shot, a pro-vaccination campaign that the song was licensed for.

Arkells tear up Budweiser Stage in Toronto's first big concert since COVID struck.

The second moment occurred after a few verses and choruses of “And Then Some,” when Kerman mentioned that the song was often requested as a wedding first dance number but, because of COVID-19, people were forced to have smaller ceremonies. He invited one of those couples — Brianna and Chelsea — to the stage and serenaded them as the couple relived their first dance and kissed to the delight of the audience.

There were the debuts: a soft, acoustic rendition of the “Campfire Chords,” “Quitting You” preceded by the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” to acknowledge the crowd support; the frantically positive “You Can Get It” and “One Thing I Know,” along with the previously mentioned “Years in the Making” and “All Roads”; all “Blink Once” tracks they were unable to play live until now due to the pandemic.

Coronavirus-related topics extended into speeches about vaccinations and at least one hammy skit involving keyboardist Anthony Carone, who showed off his piano superpowers after receiving a third energy-boosting “shot” from a syringe-brandishing Kerman.

Speaking of protocols, if you’re wondering what Budweiser Stage staff have in store for you when you get to the gate if you’re attending either Saturday’s sold-out or Sunday’s tickets-still-available shows, it’s less than you might expect.

No temperatures are being taken. No questions are asked as to whether you’re double-vaccinated. Tickets are digital and touchless, and body searches are carried out using sticks and a wand.

Once through the gate, you’re handed a packet of disinfectant wipes and an Arkells cloth that you can swing over your head while cheering for the home team band.

Physical distancing? Tickets to some venue rows were purposefully not sold but otherwise, fuhgeddaboudit. The mandate of the Ontario government’s Step 3 protocols of wearing masks unless you’re eating or drinking was honoured by some and ignored by others.

Whether you’re pro-mask or antimask, there’s one inarguable tenet: concerts have been greatly missed and there’s nothing like the collective experience of watching a performance by your favourite artist.

Toronto needed this: it was the first big-ticket concert at this venue since Wilco headlined in October 2019.

And it’s a safe bet that the Arkells needed this, too. Reached after the show by phone, Kerman said his band only had one mandate.

“Just to see people smile,” said Kerman. “It’s been so hard in the last 16 months and providing people the chance to leave any troubles in their life behind for two hours, that was the only goal.”

“It was fun and we had an amazing time out there. It exceeded any expectations that we had. This is why we love to be in the band: we get to connect with a bunch of strangers and we end up with a unifying moment.”

And providing a much-needed taste of the elixir of life.

Clarification – Aug. 14, 2021: This article was updated from a previous version to clarify that Haviah Mighty’s hairstyle seemed to resemble the coronavirus.

Arkells and Haviah Mighty at Budweiser Stage

TORONTO STAR