Fall is in the air this Saturday, October 2, 2021 evening outside Red Bank, NJ’s newest concert venue, The Vogel. Located in the Count Basie Center for the Arts, this state-of-the-art performance space is set to present a sold-out show tonight by Five for Fighting.
Five for Fighting is the stage name of singer/songwriter John Ondrasik. Ondrasik was born in Los Angeles into a musical family. As a child, he learned to play the piano. In his teens, he learned to play guitar and started to write music. After college, Ondrasik spent the early 1990s playing singer-songwriter gigs around Los Angeles where he was discovered by music publisher Carla Berkowitz, whom he later married.
In 1995, John signed with EMI Records. At the request of record executives who found his surname difficult to pronounce, Ondrasik, a hockey fan, chose for his stage name, “Five for Fighting,” an ice hockey term that means a five-minute penalty for participating in a fight.
Following the release of his debut album, Message for Albert, Ondrasik partnered with Columbia Records for his sophomore effort, America Town, which featured the single, “Superman (It’s Not Easy).” The song became an anthem after the September 11, 2001 attacks and earned Ondrasik his first Grammy nomination in 2002.
He followed that up with his 2003 hit, “100 Years,” which rocketed to #1 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary Chart and earned a Platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America for selling over a million copies.
Other Five for Fighting recordings by Ondrasik include 2006’s Two Lights, 2009’s Slice, and 2013’s Bookmarks, in addition to two live albums, 2017’s Christmas Under the Stars and 2018’s Live with String Quartet.
Ondrasik’s latest release is 2021’s “Blood On My Hands,” a song about the recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Before tonight’s show, we chat backstage at the Vogel with Jon Ondrasik who talks about being back on the road after a year-and-a-half absence caused by the pandemic.
Recalling, “This is our tenth show in twelve days,” Ondrasik reveals, “It’s been wonderful being back for so many reasons — the interaction with the audience and with the musicians in my band. It’s been refreshing for my soul.”
Even though tonight’s show is sold-out, some earlier venues have hosted less than a full house of music lovers, a situation which Ondrasik accepts by explaining, “Ego trips have been replaced by gratitude. Eventually, more and more people will want to come out to the theaters again, but in the meantime, as musicians, we’re the warriors in the trenches and we’re going to have a great time.”
Remarks Ondrasik about his current sequence of shows, “This has been a tour like no other — it’s been very emotional the last twelve days. Sometimes there are Afghan vets in the audience, and after I perform ‘Blood on My Hands,’ they can’t even speak. Military moms in the front rows are crying, understanding the promise we broke.” Continuing, “I need to help those American citizens we left behind — it’s a humanitarian and moral issue,” Ondrasik asserts, “I took no joy in writing ‘Blood on My Hands.’ I was waiting for someone else to say what needed to said, but nobody did. That song will never get a single spin on the radio or be commercially successful, so the only way it will be heard is through a grassroots movement, and I’ll be singing it tonight.”
Inside the Vogel performance space, blue lights illuminate the stage and flameless candles are strategically placed on long tables to set the mood for tonight’s show. Members of a string quartet — violinists Jeremy Kittel and Melissa Tong, violist Chris Cardona, and cellist Peter Sachon— find their places on stage where they are joined by John Ondrasik who straps on an acoustic guitar and begins his set with “Easy Tonight.”
Ondrasik’s clear tenor voice cuts through the quartet’s rich accompaniment before he effortlessly pops into his distinctive falsetto as he sings the “Shotgun fire/Anybody home/I got two dimes in the telephone” chorus on this rhythmic rocker. Hot pink and magenta beams of light crisscross the stage and illuminate audience members in the house as they listen intently to this skilled storyteller’s tale and respond with avid applause.
“Good to see you!” announces Ondrasik, before asking, “For how many is this your first concert since the pandemic?” After looking around, he responds, “A lot of you — it’s been quite a couple of years,” joking, “The good news is we’re here, but the bad news is I forgot how to play the piano. We’re going to flip this next song from piano to guitar.” Here, Ondrasik performs “Chances,” a song he wrote which appears in the film, The Blind Side.
His rich falsetto shines as Ondrasik sings “Chances are we’ll find a new equation/Chances roll away from me/Chances are all they hope to be” on this anthemic rocker which has audience members gently swaying to the music as staccato strings alternate with legato bowing.
“What an incredible quartet!” exclaims Ondrasik, before acknowledging, “This next song I’ve never played live before,” explaining the genesis of his early composition, “Love Song,” that helped to earn him a recording contract. On this arrangement, Peter Sachon on cello, and then the rest of the strings, add their voices to Ondrasik’s percussive grand piano accompaniment as he sings, “And she says, maybe it’s over/He says, there’s plenty more fish in the sea/I say, don’t go away from me” on this easy rocker which generates cheers and applause.
The packed house continues to cheer when listeners recognize the instrumental introduction to “The Riddle.” With his beautiful falsetto, Ondrasik sings, “There was a man back in ’95/Whose heart ran out of summers/But before he died, I asked him/‘Wait, what’s the sense in life?’” The strings add a special flavor and movement to this folk-rock number as lights slowly arc over the audience, making listeners feel as if they’re a part of the song.
Asking the audience to suggest any songs they’d like to hear, many call out titles until Ondrasik says, “I did hear ‘Two Lights.’” After telling a story which reveals his initial inspiration for writing the song, Ondrasik’s vocal cries out as he sings, “Tear out my heart/Feed it to lions/For this one wish I beg you tonight.” The strings underscore his emotional singing and piano playing on this achingly beautiful power ballad which garners energetic applause.
Tinkling on the piano, Ondrasik jokes, “The piano — it’s all coming back to me!” as he teases the audience before playing the introduction to “100 Years.” The string instruments fill the aural landscape while circles of white light rise like celestial beings across the room and ceiling as Ondrasik sings, “Fifteen, there’s still time for you/Time to buy and time to lose/Fifteen, there’s never a wish better than this/When you only got a hundred years to live.” The crowd responds with animated hoots and hollers.
Ondrasik declares, “I’ve missed you so much! There is no experience like this,” before acknowledging, “This is my favorite part of the show.” Here, he introduces the members of his string ensemble — Jeremy Kittel, Melissa Tong, Chris Cardona, and Peter Sachon — as “Four for Fighting,” and the quartet performs a clever and sophisticated instrumental mash-up of classical, bluegrass, rock, and film music.
Ondrasik picks up his guitar and introduces a song he wrote on a napkin with Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz. Based on Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Ondrasik and Co. perform “Slice,” a song about “a time, a long long time ago, when Chevys and levies played on the radio.”
Welcoming violinist Melissa Tong to the front of the stage,” Ondrasik confesses, “We weren’t planning on doing this — I’m just kinda in the mood to play this song,” as the pair launches into “If God Made You.”
With its magical “Sunset sailing on April skies/Bloodshot fire clouds in her eyes” chorus, white beams of light slowly cross the stage illuminating John’s lovely falsetto. Ending to cheers, John hugs Melissa.
Going back to the piano, Ondrasik explains, “This is a relatively new song. I wrote it for the 100th episode of Hawaii Five-0, but the song has been adopted by the military.” Here, Ondrasik and Co. perform an inspiring rendition of “All for One.” With its ostinato piano accompaniment, Ondrasik proudly sings, “We’ll always/We’ll always be/One for all and all for one” on this anthemic and moving composition.
Following the rhythmic rocker, “What If” — where audience members are invited to put themselves in someone else’s shoes — Ondrasik introduces “Tuesday,” pointing out, “It’s a plea to not forget the lessons of 9/11.” The strings mournfully build on this slow-rocker before Ondrasik concludes tonight’s performance with “Superman.” Superbly accompanied by piano and strings, Ondrasik sings in his unmistakable voice, “I’m more than a bird, I’m more than a plane/I’m more than some pretty face beside a train/And it’s not easy to be me.”
The crowd stands and cheers and Ondrasik says, “Thank you and good night!” before he and the instrumentalists exit the stage. Audience members raise up the candles on their tables as they demand an encore until Ondrasik retakes the stage, accepts a candle, and sets it on the piano.
For his first encore, Ondrasik and the ensemble perform “World.” Communicating his story, Ondrasik sings the song’s powerful chorus, “What kind of world do you want?/Think anything/Let’s start at the start/Build a masterpiece,” as he conducts the strings from the piano and the sound of a violin soars above the crowd.
“Your coming out is really meaningful for us,” insists Ondrasik before he and the string ensemble launch into a dynamic and appealing arrangement of “Live and Let Die,” which has the audience happily singing along on the well-known Paul McCartney tune.
The string players exit the stage and Ondrasik picks up his guitar, announcing, “I wrote a new song,” before explaining that, in Afghanistan, “There are heroes down there rescuing people — not just American citizens, but our allies we promised to protect.”
Adding that for veterans and others he’s spoken to recently “the only way for them to find some solace or closure is if there is some accountability for what happened,” Ondrasik emphasizes, “This is not a political message. I’m asking that we confront this because then we can take steps so that 1. We help the people we’re still obligated to help and 2. This doesn’t happen again.”
Here, Ondrasik presents a compelling and powerful rendition of “Blood On My Hands.” As Ondrasik cries out, “Got blood on my hands/Got blood on my hands/And I don’t understand/What’s happening,” red and white lights stream across the stage and into the audience.
The crowd responds with a standing ovation for his emotional performance, and Ondrasik responds by saying, “Thank you, guys. Drive safe. I love you very much.”
As we make our way out of the venue, we chat with several audience members who share their opinions of tonight’s concert. Exclaims Diana from Brooklyn, “This show was wonderful! I love John Ondrasik’s voice, and he sounds amazing live! The quartet was amazing, too, and this was such a fantastic place to see them,” before her husband, Phil, reacts with a smile asking, “When’s he coming back?”
Robin from Sea Bright declares, “What a fantastic performance! It was super entertaining, and I especially loved when he did ‘All For One.’” Maryann from Avon concurs, noting, “I loved all of John’s songs, and it was just amazing seeing him in this very intimate venue.”
Next, we chat with a family of moms who are here tonight with their adult daughters. Remarks daughter Allison from Toms River, “I’m a violinist, and I just loved the string quartet,” before acknowledging, “I grew up listening to Five for Fighting with my mom.” Comments Allison’s mom, Lori, from Toms River, “We’ve been listening to John for years — all three of my kids listened to him in the car. He’s a part of all of our lives. I hope he continues to perform so that I can bring my grandkids to see him some day. He’s the kind of person you want your kids to grow up to be.”
Asserts Meagan from Toms River, “I just loved this concert! John Ondrasik’s voice is just perfect.” Dawn from Toms River agrees, adding, “His voice is liquid gold. He brings tears to your eyes. He evokes emotion,” before adding, “His voice, along with the strings, was ethereal,” explaining, “We have two generations of fans here. I’ve played this music to my kids ever since they were babies.”
Lastly, we chat with Todd and Ann from Chatham. Declares Todd, “This show was great — I really enjoyed it! It’s our first concert since the pandemic, and it was in such an intimate setting.” His wife, Ann, concurs, adding, “It was such a meaningful and intimate performance,” before concluding, “I’ve been to many concerts in my life, but this was the best show I’ve ever been to!”
To learn more about Five for Fighting, please click on fiveforfighting.com. For information on upcoming performances at the Vogel — including Rick Wakeman on October 28, David Benoit on December 4, and Peter Asher on May 13, 2022 — please go to thebasie.org/the-vogel.
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