High school musicians, take heed: Following the advice of parents and guidance counselors to break up the band and head off to different colleges may be a poor decision.
If you go
What: O.A.R. with Andrew McMahon and Allen Stone
When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Family Circle Magazine Stadium, 161 Seven Farms Drive, Daniel Island
For more info: www.ofarevolution.com
Since forming in 1996 as four students at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Md., Of A Revolution, better known as O.A.R., has grown from an indie-underground favorite on the college jam-band circuit into a national force that has sold out Madison Square Garden and had major radio hits in songs such as “Shattered (Turn the Car Around)” and “Love and Memories.”
That career began when the members, led by singer-guitarist Marc Roberge, made the decision to enroll together at Ohio State University. They chose the school because it was one of the largest in the country; with nearly 60,000 students and 80 bars within a mile of campus; and Columbus, Ohio, presented a prime opportunity to grow the fledgling group.
They soon acquired a fifth member, saxophonist Jerry DePizzo, and began touring the Midwest’s college circuit each weekend.
“We had a manager who would collect our syllabus at the beginning of each semester and try to schedule shows around our school work,” recalls Chris Culos, the band’s drummer, speaking just before arriving in Michigan at a recent tour stop. “We would be in the van, studying for exams and doing our homework. Everyone would fight for the back row because that’s where the only light in the van was in those days.”
O.A.R.’s first album, “The Wanderer,” was recorded while the members were still teenagers, but it produced songs including “That Was a Crazy Game of Poker” and “Black Rock” that are still crowd-favorite staples of the live performances.
The late ’90s brought the advent of file sharing via services such as Napster, and O.A.R. benefited greatly from the spread of its music across college networks.
“When we first started, every college kid was on Napster, and before we had a record label deal or any songs on the radio, people all over the country were finding out who we were,” says Culos. “We embraced that side of the technology.”
Eventually, popularity led to mainstream attention. In 2005, the fifth studio album, “Stories of a Stranger,” began to make inroads with MTV and FM radio. At the same time, the group began to abandon its acoustic and reggae roots in favor of more polished pop songwriting. That came to a peak with “Shattered” from the “All Sides” album in 2008.
Although the most recent studio release, “King” in 2011, continued along the path of electric rock, the subsequent “Live on Red Rocks,” released in November, demonstrated that the live show still melds improv-driven classics with the more recent pop nuggets.
“It’s almost like we have two different audiences, at times,” says Culos. “We’ve got a hardcore fan base that’s been with us for years and years and years, and I think we are very open with them and say, ‘Hey, sometimes we write these songs on the radio because they create a lot of opportunities for us to continue doing what we do and to get more people out to the shows and to grow as a band.’ But maybe those fans would prefer us to play more concert staples like ‘City on Down’ and ‘Crazy Game of Poker.’ ”
The other fans, says Culos, are those who may have only heard O.A.R.’s songs that receive radio play. For them, he hopes, the live show is a chance “to see another side of what we do.”
Pop and jam-band
Although O.A.R. missed Charleston during its 2012 tour (they stopped in Columbia to play the South Carolina State Fair last fall), the band has been a frequent visitor to Family Circle Magazine Stadium over the years, where it will perform Wednesday.
Culos says it’s a show he always looks forward to, both for the friends the band has in the area and for the chance to go out to The Windjammer on the Isle of Palms after the show.
On its current tour, the band is traveling with special guests Andrew McMahon (formerly of Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin) and singer-songwriter Allen Stone.
“I was a huge fan of both of those guys before I even saw them live,” says Culos, adding that Stone has been making use of O.A.R.’s horn section during his opening set. At the end of the night, all three bands have been taking the stage together for a finale.
Although that’s been a consistent occurrence this summer, Culos says that the set lists themselves are constantly in flux.
“We mix it up a lot; to be honest, every night,” he claims. “If you’ve been to a concert last summer and heard a song, you’re probably going to hear a different version. It’ll be recognizable, but there will be a part of it that makes it new and fresh.”
That tendency toward improvisation stems from the band’s early days, when members were frequently asked to play four-hour shows at house parties, with a repertoire that included only 10-or-so songs.
“It forced us to come up with stuff on the spot,” says Culos. “If you’re going to play ‘Poker’ three times in one night, you’ve got to start adding new parts to make it sound different. From there, it created something that we’ve always tried to do.”
Along with being one of the first bands to break through due to online trading, O.A.R. also attracted “tapers,” who record the concerts and share the audio online. Even with the introduction of LiveOAR.com, a site where high-quality recordings of each concert are available for purchase, they still allow fans to do the same thing for free.
“When we first found out that people were coming out and taping and trading our shows online, we thought it was really cool because it was growing a real community,” Culos recalls. “People who met each other through trading online were coming to shows and actually becoming friends.”
That phenomenon also shaped O.A.R.’s approach to performances.
“If you’re going to come out and tape a band, you don’t want to hear the exact same show each time, so it kept us on our toes,” he explains.
A return to roots
Despite the similarities in taping and sharing policy to well-known jam-bands like Phish or Widespread Panic, Culos says that the band never considered itself a member of that group, and he acknowledges that O.A.R.’s recent recordings have moved away from its earlier organic sound.
This spring, band members recorded a new album in Brooklyn, N.Y., that he claims will remind listeners of earlier songs.
“Because we’ve been a band for so long, there are a lot of different phases or stages in our career, and it’s not really intentional to make a shift,” says Culos. “We don’t want to change anything. It’s more about wanting to keep growing and pushing ourselves. When we started as a band in a basement, we were just playing music for a few friends, and there was an innocence there and a kind of honesty that people reacted and responded to.”
Once that contagious energy led to a record deal and opportunities to place songs into movies and on television, the band began to focus more on concise pop songwriting for much of the 2000s.
“We’ve kind of done a 360 from there, where we’ve said, ‘We almost started doing too much of the formula, and we need to get back to what it is that we do: the easy-breezy stuff, where you don’t know if it’s rock or reggae, because it’s just it’s own unique thing,’ ” Culos explains, adding, “I think people react to the stuff that only O.A.R. can do. They don’t like the O.A.R. stuff that they hear that other bands can do, too.”
On the new album and summer tour, Culos says the band is focused on “getting back in touch with really just being ourselves and having a good time.”
Because in the end, that’s really what makes it possible for a high school band to survive and still find growth, nearly 20 years after graduation.
Of A Revolution performs at a past show.×
O.A.R. during alive live performance.×
Provided O.A.R. will perform Wednesday at Family Circle Magazine Stadium.×