On January 31st I went to see Frank Turner at the Wonderland Ballroom in Portland. He was every bit as awesome as I expected to him to be, and I had a great time. But the lasting effect of this concert came from an opening act I had never heard of before that night.

Arkells are an indie-pop band from Hamilton, Ontario, and they are bloody fantastic. Great pop hooks, killer harmonies, an engaging front man, a super tight performance- they had me from their first chords. I had no idea who they were, but I was singing along by the end of the first song. I got so caught up in the show that I did something I would never have done: in the middle of “Private School” the singer asked if anyone in the crowd wanted to play guitar, and my hand shot up instantly. Then this happened:


I admit it’s a little hard for me to watch this clip. In my head, I was jumping around and rocking out with the band, but you can see here that this wasn’t the case. The stage was cramped, I was trying not fuck up (though I’m not sure my guitar was loud enough for that to have been an issue), and playing a song I wasn’t familiar with. But oh god, what a rush. At one point I managed to look up at the crowd – the place was packed – and thought, more clearly than I have ever thought before about anything, that THIS is what I’m meant to do. Returning to my daily routine has been painful. I can’t concentrate on my day job, things that I used to enjoy don’t leave me as fulfilled as they did before…all I can think about is getting back to that moment.

I can’t remember the last time I went from having never heard of a band to being a die hard fan by the end of the first set. Now that I think about it, I don’t think it’s ever happened. Most of my favorite music took a several listens to fully implant itself into my psyche. A few years ago I saw Northcote open for The Gaslight Anthem, and I liked his music enough to buy his self-titled CD. I love that album, but it took a few listens. Occasionally I’ll get infatuated with a single the first time I hear it, but that infatuation tends to burn out pretty quickly. I’ll listen obsessively for a few days and then forget all about it. This hasn’t been the case with Arkells. Their last two albums, Morning Report and High Noon, have been on my play list since I bought them the day after the concert. The music is unashamedly pop and immediately accessible. There was a time when I thought this was a bad thing, but my tastes have changed over the last several years. I’ve been moving towards music that reminds me what I loved about music in the first place: the visceral joy of a great hook.

After the show I learned that the band is pretty big in Canada. They’ve won a bunch of Juno awards and are heroes in their hometown. After the Portland show the tour moved on to Vancouver and the bill flipped: Arkells became the headliners and Frank Turner the opening act. Thankfully they are committed to growing their US fan base. Last Wednesday they were back in Portland, this time opening for UK band Blossoms. Naturally, my wife and I went back to see them. We were there when the doors opened and staked out a spot directly in front of center stage, next to some college kids whose experience with the band mirrored our own. Once again, they played a killer set, though they didn’t ask for anyone to join then on stage this time. After their set, I headed to the bar for a beer and saw singer Max Kerman talking to fans, so I got in line to talk to him. I told him I loved his music and thanked him for pulling me on stage last time (which he remembered!). It was really, really cool. And as a bonus, a guy next to me at the bar come up to me and said “hey, are you the guy that got to play on stage at the last show?”. I’m not going to lie, that was cool to hear. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who had to see this band again.

The high, which had never fully dissipated from January, is still in effect. Now I have to figure out how to turn this motivation into something tangible. Over the past year I’ve been struggling with the question of whether it’s ridiculous to attempt a career in music at this point in my life. This is the wrong question. Of course it’s ridiculous. But it’s also necessary.

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