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O.A.R. revolutionizes sound, potential

Bob Costa | Thursday, April 27, 2006

Although not on Notre Dame’s campus, Tuesday’s O.A.R. concert at the Morris Center for the Performing Arts was certainly filled with many frayed ND-logo hats, popped collars and a few local Deadheads looking for a fresh groove. Playing to a nearly sold-out audience of mostly area college and high-school students, rock band O.A.R. (Of A Revolution) played a two-hour set that focused on the band’s new album while throwing a few bones to its fan base with a set-list that also included some songs that were first debuted in the late-Nineties when the band was playing the local concert circuit around the Ohio State University.

Before releasing their most recent studio album “Stories of a Stranger,” O.A.R. was at a crossroads. They had loads of talent and a raucous live show that appealed to people who dug Sublime and those into John Mayer. But, they still were being pegged as a younger version of the Dave Matthews Band due to their roots-rock vibe and the inclusion of a saxophonist in its main lineup. After independently releasing albums like “The Wanderer” and “Any Time Now,” the band signed with a major-label and released “In Between Now and Then” in 2003 on Everfine/Lava. The reception to the album was lukewarm and featured many O.A.R. songs retread from previous albums.

With their new record, O.A.R. has finally released a real album. “Stories of a Stranger” is tightly focused and scatters jazz, folk and O.A.R.’s unique brand of reggae into a pop formula that keeps the songs in front and the jams in the back. Lyricist and lead singer Marc Roberge has been known to meander around with words on previous records, mixing relgious enthusiasm with the follies of a poker game gone bad. It is notable that Roberge collaborated with Glen Ballard on the songs “Program Director” and “Love and Memories.” Ballard is the same man who produced Alanis Morrisette on her breakthrough “Jagged Little Pill” and Dave Matthews Band on “Everyday” – which “Stories of a Stranger” echoes in many ways.

“Stories of a Stranger” is O.AR.’s best studio album by far, although other O.A.R. fans at the show disagreed. Some see it as a “sell-out” to commercialism and pop while others thought it is the album O.A.R. had to release in order to get out of its stagnant quasi-“jam-band” rut. Regardless of where you stand on the pop nature of the album, the songs from “Stories” seem to only get better when explored live by the band and talented keyboardist Michael Paris, who has been a guest with O.A.R. for their entire spring tour. The expansive stage of the Morris Center was a perfect venue for the band to stretch out its musical legs and rock-out.

Most of O.A.R.’s foray into the Top 40 world has been positive, especially with its songwriting, but many of the band’s die-hard fans were unenthusiastic about this current tour. For years, O.A.R. has cultivated a “grassroots” image of a college band that laid its reputation down every night with frat-happy songs interspersed with a bit of wisdom and tons of energy. Now, after signing to a major-label in Lava/Atlantic Records, the band has its tour sponsored by Sony Computer Entertainment and Major League Baseball. After Army of Me opened, fans were beset by a barrage of commercials for video games and MLB products hawked by O.A.R. members – not exactly the epitome of musical integrity for a band that stood steadfastly independent for so long.

Other performances from the new record “Stories of a Stranger” correlated surprisingly well into the live setting. Lead singer Marc Roberge led his band into taut renditions of “Heard the World” and “The Stranger” where it was easy to tell that the band had much more fun playing around with than their older, almost tired, songs that they’ve been playing non-stop for close to five years. The fervor in which O.A.R. approached other new songs like “52-50,” “One Shot” and “Lay Down” was infectious.

O.A.R. then segued into “Love and Memories,” the Maryland-based band’s current single that has been a top 20 hit at both Hot AC and Triple A radio outlets. With its infusion of a crackling guitar riff played by guitarist Richard On, the ballad caused a frenzy in the crowd who had been slightly dazed for a few song – perhaps due to the unmistakable organic scent wafting around the Morris Center’s vaulted ceilings. Instead of being a hippie love song like many of O.A.R.’s older tunes, “Love and Memories” in a live setting was a frantic and tightly wound pop song – more like The Killers than Dave Matthews.

The Morris Center concert concluded with Roberge playing a solo acoustic rendition of the haunting unreleased song “Princess Valerie,” which Roberge said was still “in development.” The entire O.A.R. ensemble joined Roberge for one last song to end the evening – their fan-favorite concert staple “That Was a Crazy Game of Poker.” Still, for a band that once made its name off that song’s popularity, “Poker” was hardly the night’s best song. As much as its fans may not like to admit it, O.A.R. is much better in playing its pop-rock songs off “Stories of a Stranger” then any of its attempts at reggae-infused rhythms. The band can improvise and extend its songs into the ten minute territory, but the best moments of Tuesday’s show came when O.A.R. concentrated its melodies into a concise harmony that didn’t noodle off into a muddy jam with no direction.