Some things are built to last. During the course of its two decades of making records, O.A.R. — lead singer and primary songwriter Marc Roberge, drummer Chris Culos, guitarist Richard On, bassist Benj Gershman and saxophonist/guitarist Jerry DePizzo—has created and maintained a sort of a parallel universe. In effect hiding in plain sight from the world outside, the band fills arenas and amphitheaters as it crafts and releases relatable songs with big pop hooks, all of this activity going down completely apart from the mainstream. Within this universe, these songs are bona fide hits, and the band members are superstars.
Now, 20 years, endless shows and 13 albums later, O.A.R. (an acronym for the band’s full name: .…of a revolution) has assembled a comprehensive career overview: XX ; a 24-track, half-studio and half-live collection, shines a light on key moments from this vital, prolific band’s recording career. As a bonus to O.A.R.’s ecstatically devoted fans, the set opens with a pair of inspired, newly written songs: “Follow Me, Follow You” and “I Go Through,” which were written and recorded as the cameras rolled during Qello Concerts’ captivating six-part docu-series Evolution of a Song.
“People like being part of what we are doing, because we exist and we succeed within our own community,” Roberge points out. “We have no desire to exist or succeed by someone else’s standards. We just want to provide for our families and give them every opportunity, and do that by playing shows and making music.”
XX is neither a career culmination nor a conventional greatest-hits album; rather, it’s a sizing up, a series of aural snapshots on a continuing journey. Roberge views O.A.R.’s evolution as a series of stepping stones—he refers to this zigzagging movement as “island-hopping”—and each of the songs on XX represents a moment of significance for the bandmembers and for their devoted fans. The one song that appears twice, “That Was a Crazy Game of Poker,” a definitive tune that dates back to that first album, The Wanderer, closes Disc One of XX, while an extended take recorded during the band’s triumphant 2015 “You Pick the Set Tour” at Providence’s Fete Music Hall climaxes Disc Two.
Roberge breaks down the rationale behind the selection of some of the other tracks he and his bandmates have identified as “springboards to the next moment” in O.A.R.’s narrative. The medley of their own “Night Shift” and Bob Marley & the Wailers’ “Stir It Up,” on which they were joined by reggae legend Junior Marvin, “was a live recording at the 9:30 Club in D.C., ” Roberge recalls. “It combined our music and the music we’ve always loved. We didn’t want to play Bob Marley’s music or reggae in general unless we received some sort education in that music from the people who were there, and Junior bridged that gap—he came out and made it a moment for us.” The album, 2002’s Any Time Now, went gold.
“I Feel Home,” from the same album, “has to be on there because it harkens back to innocent times—our very beginnings,” Roberge explains. “Playing that song with two friends on the trunk of a car in a driveway in Rockville, Maryland, singlehandedly shaped how I saw things and my attitude toward songwriting for years. I thought—and I still do—that songwriting was supposed to be: Write what you know, be honest and invite people into your world. And that’s exactly what we did with that song.”
Fast-forward five years to “War Song.” “In 2007, we went to Iraq and Kuwait to play songs for our troops with the USO,” Roberge explains. “It was a huge moment. When we got back, we wrote this song about the people we had met—a song about the warrior, not the war.” This recording is from Live on Red Rocks.
If there’s a thread that runs through this music—from the band’s humble beginnings to its present hard-earned status, it’s affirmation and uplift. This expansive humanistic impulse, which remains a central aspect of the band’s appeal to its legion of fans, “comes from a few different places,” Roberge notes.
“In the beginning, I hadn’t really done anything yet except dream about this magical place where we could all follow these ideals and be awesome. Then you go a little bit further into the career, and you’re still really feeling that your goal is to lift people up, but you start to do it out of frustration—that things aren’t the way you thought they were or could be. When you get to that point, you have to scream even louder to make a difference.
“Later on, when you find yourself backed up against the wall, and that’s when the real test comes. That was when we really began to connect as a group, and we became aligned with a sort of philosophy of human movement. We just stay honest and try to bring people up. Because we fall just as often as everybody else, and sometimes I have to coach myself to keep my chin up. I just transfer that inner dialogue into the music.”
In a sense, then, every O.A.R. show is a communal celebration in which Roberge and his bandmates preside over a town hall meeting of their constituents. It’s a unifying, reassuring and ultimately ecstatic experience, for the bandmembers as well as the enrapt faces in the crowd spread out in front of them.
“It feels therapeutic,” Roberge says. “I feel like I am in complete control of my life for those two or three hours. I’m riding this rollercoaster up and down through each song, expressing what I’m thinking, feeling and living—and everybody else is experiencing the same thing. So we’re all in it together for the duration of the show. When it’s over, everybody feels better. That’s what happens every single night. I never go into a show thinking I have to do this. I always think, I get to do this.”
This communal process of therapy/exorcism/ecstasy animates the songs and performances handpicked by the bandmembers to represent the magical world they first envisioned as teenagers and have inhabited ever since. Some dreams die hard. And some dreams are built to last.
O.A.R. XX August 5, 2016
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