Breaking The Mold

With Hits Like 'Shattered,' Rockville's O.a.r. Is Moving Beyond Its Jam Band Roots

August 06, 2009|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,sam.sessa@baltsun.com

It has to be one of the trickiest transitions in pop music.

In the past several years, O.A.R. has made the jump from successful jam band to radio-friendly rock outfit. The band once known for the nine-minute acoustic epic "That Was a Crazy Game of Poker" - a smash on the college circuit - is now the band behind the platinum-selling rock single "Shattered."

Back when O.A.R. first got together in Rockville in the mid-1990s, there was a clear-cut career path for musicians: Most bands signed to major labels, cranked out a couple of hits, developed a fan base and then drew on that fan base.

O.A.R. did things the opposite way. They fostered a huge underground following by touring endlessly and encouraging fans to distribute their music online and by word of mouth. Once they had the audience, they signed to a label. On Friday, they're headlining Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Looking back, singer and guitarist Marc Roberge is glad O.A.R. didn't go for the major label deal from the start.

"I don't think at age 20 I would have known what to do with a paycheck from a song," Roberge said. "I'm almost happy we didn't achieve some sort of commercial success right off the bat, because we weren't ready for it. Musically, we weren't where we wanted to be."

Growing up in Rockville, Roberge was submerged in the jam band scene. His brother, Jeff, is the drummer for jam rock group Foxtrot Zulu. But even then, Roberge knew his music didn't quite fit the average jam band mold.

At first, O.A.R. (the name stands for "Of A Revolution") was welcomed on the jam festival scene. O.A.R. still spent tons of time improvising in their live shows. The nine-minute studio version of "That Was a Crazy Game of Poker" is still routinely stretched out to a 20-minute live anthem. But they never liked being pigeonholed as a jam band.

"We've based our entire career on improv and making things up on the fly," Roberge said. "That's what jamming is, and that's what we do. ... But we just hate to narrow down our audience to any specific group."

By the early 2000s, the five guys in the group felt comfortable enough to sign to a major label, Lava Records, an affiliate of Atlantic Records. Lava released the album "In Between Now and Then" in 2003, which started an upward trend for the band. "In Between Now and Then" debuted at No. 54 on the Billboard Top 200. The next album, 2005's "Stories of a Stranger" debuted at No. 40. And their most recent album, "All Sides," debuted at No. 13 last year. "All Sides" has the hit single "Shattered" - the band's first song to go platinum.

With the new direction comes a shift in the band's live set, too. After all, there isn't much room for improv passages in rock songs like "Shattered," Roberge said.

"With the last couple records, we've definitely been experimenting with the art of songwriting," Roberge said. "What may come across is a new era of more structured writing."

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of O.A.R.'s musical shift: They haven't alienated their huge grass-roots fan base. If anything, they've widened it. Years ago, the crowd at an O.A.R. show was mostly college kids. Now, thanks to the success of their radio hits, Roberge can look out into the audience and see mothers with their 12-year-old daughters.

"That's what we want," he said. "We want to see people of all backgrounds - all shapes, sizes, colors and ages. The more that's happening over the years, the happier we are."

Somewhere along the way, as the band moved from the jam band scene to the rock realm, they picked up another label: Christian band. None of the members are sure where it came from, but somehow, they've been labeled as a Christian band. It's even in their Wikipedia entry.

"I don't know where that came from," he said. "None of us are very religious people. We're all from different backgrounds."

Roberge is Jewish, and the rest of the band is a mishmash, including Baptist, Jewish and Roman Catholic. Though spirituality has a place in their songs, it doesn't define them, Roberge said.

"I certainly refer to God at some points in time," he said. "I don't mean that for any certain religion. When I feel close to something, I refer to it as God. Maybe a lot of people connect to that. But I'm certainly no preacher."

Roberge and the rest of the band have started work on a new album, which he said could be released early next year. They're spending time during their sound checks working on grooves, and want to make a record people can bob their heads to, he said.

Between touring and his new son, Hudson, Roberge hasn't had much time to focus on new music. A live album taped during the band's Chicago performance a couple of weeks ago is slated for release later this year, he said.

Lately, Roberge has been digging back into music he listened to 10 years ago, like Pearl Jam, Crowded House and Phil Collins. It's brought back the energy and sense of possibility he had when O.A.R. first formed.

"Now I've got this feeling I did years ago, when music was a challenge and I wanted to face it head-on," Roberge said. "Those types of songs inspire you to write better."

Nearly every year since 2002, O.A.R. has played at Merriweather Post Pavilion. They started as an opening act, and gradually grew into a headliner. For Roberge, it's like a yearly pilgrimage back to his old stomping grounds.

"When I play a show at Merriweather, I immediately feel at home," he said. "For a night, you see the faces you haven't seen in a long time. For a night, you feel like you're growing up all over again."

If you go

O.A.R. performs Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets are $30-$38. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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