The word “revolution” may be a major 2016 political buzzword, but it has been employed in the epithet of O.A.R. — an abbreviation for Of a Revolution — for two decades now.
At the time of forming, four of the band’s five members — three of whom have a Jewish heritage — had begun to make and perform music together in their hometown of Rockville, Md., while all attending Thomas Sprigg Wootton High School.
“Revolution as a part of our name was in reference to what the music was doing for us back in high school,” says Benj Gershman, the band’s bassist. “It was a positive change. It was a revolution in our daily lives. As far as now, it still hasn’t changed. It’s still about the music. It’s not political.”
He’s speaking on the phone from New York on the first day of the band’s current tour, XX — which will bring them to Royal Oak Music Theatre Thursday, Aug. 25, and bears the same name given to their new compilation album. Both serve as celebrations marking their 20 years together of performing rousing live shows and creating an alternative rock aesthetic with roots and jam-band overtones.
“We wanted to basically create an album that had the quintessential O.A.R. songs. When you think about O.A.R., these are the songs that represent us,” Gershman says. The album includes 18 cuts off their previous eight studio albums and five live albums, as well as two new singles — 20 songs for 20 years, during which O.A.R. transformed themselves from an indie college band to a Billboard chart-topper.
“The album is a culmination of what we’ve been through and also a look forward,” he adds. A couple of those “quintessential songs” he speaks of — including the band’s first big hit, “Crazy Game of Poker” off 1997’s The Wanderer — were inspired and took shape while the band’s other two Jewish members spent a semester of high school in Israel. “I think it was ’95. Marc [Roberge, vocalist/guitarist] and Chris [Culos, drummer] traveled to Israel on a high school-in-Israel program. They were just expressing themselves over there, and some of those ideas turned into songs and some of those songs turned into O.A.R. songs,” says Gershman, who attended the same program in Israel the following year.
Gershman, who grew up in a Conservative household, was active both in his congregation, Har Shalom of Potomac, Md., as well as the greater local Jewish community. He cites his summers at the Jewish Capital Camps as helping prepare him for a life spent frequently on the road touring. “Camp gave me a precursor to being around people 24/7 and recognizing that the dynamics of your relationships are vital to having a good time,” he says. “Being in a band and traveling with people day in and day out, you really have to be mindful of everyone, how things feel to each person. Otherwise things can get off balance. I think I probably started learning about this [concept] early on at camp.”
Although Gershman doesn’t associate a correlation between the band’s religious backgrounds and their music, he does believe it is guided by the principles instilled in its members.
“I gained a lot of my morals and values through my family and our community growing up. Going to Hebrew school was a part of that,” he says. “I think that spirituality and morals and values play a role in our music, but I don’t think religion directly has played a role in the crafting of songs or the branding of our band, so to speak.
“I think we are people who are open to everything in the world we live in. We’re inclusive of everything. We try to include everything into our lives. I don’t know that any of us focus on religion in that way. It definitely guides, and it has guided, the way we were brought up and the experiences that we now draw from,” he explains.
O.A.R.’s strong ethical sensibilities led them to form, in 2006, the Heard the World foundation, a charity organization that supports youth, education and sustainable programs. The band also has raised money for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, gone on tour in support of Habitat for Humanity and performed at the opening and closing ceremonies of 2015’s Special Olympics World Summer Games.
It makes sense, then, when Gershman succinctly sums up in just one word the band’s message: “Positivity.” *
O.A.R. brings its XX Tour: Evolution of a Revolution to the Royal Oak Music Theatre 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25. $49.95-$79.75. (248) 399-2980; royaloakmusictheatre.com.
By Reisa Shanaman | Special to the Jewish News