Friday, January 30, 2009

O.A.R. concert review

This review originally appeared in the Orange County Register on Jan. 26.
Where: House of Blues, Anaheim
When: Jan. 24

For many O.A.R. fans in Anaheim on Saturday night, achieving total inebriation seemed to be more important than watching a gig from their favorite group. I can’t remember the last time so many people boasted about how drunk they were or planned to get before show time.

If you’re going to partake in a communal experience like the one O.A.R. (the acronym means Of a Revolution) typically provides live, wouldn’t it be better to remember what happened afterward? Several obnoxious louts at a packed House of Blues (the first of two appearances) apparently disagreed. Alcohol sales probably exceeded expectations.

The Rockville, Maryland quintet gained a rabid grass roots following on college campuses via file sharing in the early 2000s while members were students at Ohio State University. They have drawn comparisons to Dave Matthews Band due to jam rock tendencies (most songs surpass five minutes; others broach the 10-minute mark), an open taping policy and a prominent sax player. But the similarities end there.

Singer/guitarist Marc Roberge often engages in lyrical improvisations onstage and the O.A.R. repertoire frequently encompasses reggae sounds. In recent years, the group sold out New York City’s Madison Square Garden twice. “All Sides,” released last year, is the sixth and strongest studio disc to date, accentuating Roberge’s inspired songwriting, catchier-than-usual choruses and more memorable melodies. Current hit single “Shattered” is top 20 at various radio formats.

The musicians – augmented by tour keyboardist Mikel Paris – got off to a sluggish start in O.C. with the moody and expansive “City on Down,” from 2000 debut “Souls Aflame.” It was marred by a muddy sound mix that continued through a quarter of the nearly two-hour, 18-song set. Good time anthem “This Town” – the first of five “All Sides” tunes performed – featured three electric guitars. The rousing rocker was fun, but certain instruments were barely discernable.

Roberge isn’t exactly a captivating front man; neither are his band mates, who initially appeared to be going through the motions. Still, “Wonderful Day” oozed with positive vibes as saxophonist Jerry DePizzo provided jaunty fills and Paris added sweet organ. Fans crowded near the front of the stage pumped their fists in approval and hoisted homemade signs. The uplifting “Try Me,” about trusting your own instincts, soared thanks to robust harmonies and chiming guitar work by Richard On.

Dub reggae love song “Dareh Meyod” (a Farsi phrase translated as “it’s coming”) was merely passable and extended with guitar and sax solos. “This is one of the first songs we ever recorded,” explained Roberge, before the subtle, meandering “About an Hour Ago.” The crowd shouted the lyrics loudly.

Elsewhere, a highly dramatic “On My Way,” described as being about “someone who doesn’t believe in themselves,” found Roberge pulling out all the vocal stops and “Delicate Few” continued the island party spirit. A surprising cover of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” done in the Joe Cocker vein, proved the band could get psychedelic with Paris and On doubling up on a lengthy keyboard intro and Roberge giving it his gritty best.

Come encore time, O.A.R. did one of the evening’s highlights - a majestic “Shattered,” where female enthusiasts danced around trance-like and concert staple “That Was a Crazy Game of Poker.” One of the band’s earlier songs, “Poker” clocked in at 13 minutes and was like their version of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s “Rosalita,” all shifting tempos, solos, fun sing along sections, sax lines galore and Roberge displaying his impressive toasting/improv skills.

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