Staring out before the buzzing, jubilant wash of 18,000 fans at Madison Square Garden in 2006, front man Marc Roberge had to stop the show. His band, O.A.R., which stands for “Of a Revolution,” had sold out the home of the New York Knicks, “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” Countless greats have graced that arena’s floor, from Patrick Ewing to Neil Young. It was a moment.
Dedicating a life to being a professional musician can be taxing, a gamble (more on this dynamic later). It takes dedication, sacrifice and time away from family. So, Roberge thought at MSG, he damn well better celebrate this high point for the band, which has now enjoyed a career spanning nearly 25 years since the first writing sessions for its jaunty, popular 1997 debut LP, The Wanderer.
“It’s a commitment to a lifestyle and you’re giving up a lot of the daily doses of what we need in relationships at home,” Roberge says of his vocation. “That’s nothing to complain about. But you also have to really appreciate it. At MSG, it was a very special moment. I said, ‘Sorry, I have to stand here and feel it right now.’ I saw my mom, my mother-in-law. I can close my eyes and see it right now.”
O.A.R.’s rise to MSG was unpredictable. Given the precise timing and technology involved, a screenwriter couldn’t have written the plot until it had already happened. But the story of the band begins in the relatively small town of Rockville, Maryland. It was there where a group of neighborhood friends bonded over music, MTV concerts and fantasies of the road. Growing up, Roberge was influenced by his grandfather, who, despite having only modest means, built a small hangout and music room in his Atlantic City home attic. When Roberge would visit, he practically saw his future.
“I lucked out,” he says. “My grandfather became a blackjack dealer at a casino. He loved having music in the house. He had a little drum set upstairs, an organ. I’d hear these parties going on upstairs when I’d stay with my grandparents. Long after they stopped, I could hear them going on.”
Roberge’s older brother, Jeff, also played music as the drummer for the East Coast jam band Foxtrot Zulu. From watching his brother rehearse, Roberge’s urge to play live music grew. He wanted to be a road warrior, a cowboy, out on the highway, discovering, playing for his supper, finding the various ups and downs and ins and outs that may transpire. He pictured himself squinting into the sun. (“I always wanted to earn my stripes,” he says.) His family supported him. He drank up music, the tapes his brother passed down. And he discussed all of this with his friends, the future members of O.A.R.
“We met being from the exact same neighborhood and we developed friendships based on similar things we liked,” Roberge says.
While that may sound simple, it’s a crucial detail. The band members liked each other. They truly enjoyed each other’s company. The word “camaraderie” comes to mind and the band had it from the beginning in spades. So much so that most of their songs were written about their friendships, backyard hangs, card games, drinking beer, summers and feeling the emotion of close relationships. Some write beach songs; O.A.R. wrote neighborhood anthems.
“We were writing real songs about our life,” Roberge says.
Here’s where the story takes an especially odd turn. On June 1, 1999, the music world changed forever. Just two years after releasing The Wanderer, the file-sharing giant Napster arrived. Suddenly, music lovers could download virtually any song they wanted at any time. It was a sonic smorgasbord. And few bands benefited more than O.A.R.
A handful of years before Napster’s seismic explosion, Roberge had been in Israel. He was finishing his junior year of high school abroad when the idea of a poker game popped into his head. He jotted everything down in a notebook. Little did he know at the time, he’d just written the skeleton of the band’s biggest song — one that would soon be all over Napster.
“One night I wasn’t feeling very good, I don’t know why,” Roberge says. “I went back to my dorm, sat down and literally wrote about a game of cards with the devil. The whole thing played out really quickly. I put it down in my little book and felt much better.”
When he returned stateside, Roberge brought those lyrics (and many others) to band practice with his crew. O.A.R. had officially begun. For the group’s debut LP, the quintet — which includes singer Roberge, drummer Chris Culos, guitarist Richard On, bassist Benj Gershman and saxophonist Jerry DePizzo — recorded the entire album in two sessions. One day, they recorded four songs; the next, five. Just like that, all in a basement in Maryland.
Each of the nine tracks is a delight. Roberge jokes that he didn’t even know what a harmony was while recording the album. When one was pointed out, his mind was blown (“Wow!”). With a happy, infectious album in tow, the band launched its own small record label and capped that off with a very smart plan — a do-it-yourself sales program. They spent $1,000 on 1,000 CDs and gave 25 to each of their friends at different colleges across the country.
“’Sell them, give them away, I don’t care,’” Roberge remembers saying. “Just get their names.”
O.A.R. grew its mailing list and musical footprint one college clique at a time. But when Napster hit and grew, the members quickly saw their songs evolve from being secret frat favorites to the unofficial soundtracks of campuses everywhere in the early 2000s. To call O.A.R. and bands like them (Dispatch, Guster) a phenomenon is an understatement. The group, now graduated from high school and attending Ohio State, leaned into new opportunities.
“We saw reactions to our songs all over the world,” Roberge says. “We looked at places 2,000 miles away and thought we could go there. On weekends, we’d leave college, go to Arizona, go to Nevada. Because of our sales program, we’d find a place to play. We’d play and people knew the words to all our songs.”
It blossomed from there. The band released its second album, Soul’s Aflame, in 1999 and its third, Risen, in 2001. They churned out memorable, supreme sing-along songs like “I Feel Home” and “Hey, Girl.” They toured the country, their fan base growing and growing. O.A.R. often led thousands singing the lyrics of “That Was A Crazy Game Of Poker” into the night, fans arm-in-arm, the welcoming aroma of cheap beer wafting in the new breeze. The band’s shows were so renowned that their live albums like Any Time Now might be among their most popular.
In 2003, the band released the 15-track In Between Now and Then. In many ways, the album was the band’s most ambitious, the culmination of years on the road, growing a fan base, earning its stripes. The heavy, thumping second track, “Dareh Meyod,” stands out as one of O.A.R.’s best songs. While the band until then had primarily been known for its acoustic tracks, the group seemed to lean heavily into its appreciation for more highly produced reggae music. In truth, though, the band had always had roots in traditional Jamaican music.
“In Rockville,” Roberge says, “there were a variety of radio stations that played amazing, eclectic music at night, from rock to reggae.”
Members of Bob Marley’s famous band, The Wailers, lived around the Washington D.C.-Maryland area, Roberge says, and as O.A.R. continued its journey, they would collaborate with each other. The band would even look to members of Marley’s crew for lessons on the origins of the genre’s sounds — why certain snare hits land where they do, or the musical or cultural significance of certain bass lines.
“It’s a very human sound,” Roberge says. “I felt this heartbeat. The rhythms are much easier to play on guitar and it’s how I learned to play. Early on, we found comfort in playing the rhythms for a really long time, making up words and songs. We were always aware of the fact that it wasn’t ‘our world.’ But we wanted to know more.”
The members of O.A.R. always want to know more. They’re wanderers, cowboys. And as the band’s 25th year dawns, the members will continue their search for more good music. The band is planning a series of events to celebrate the anniversary, from streamed quarantined shows to a big tour and new music. It’s all part of the life of a career musician. Attention must be paid to the muse, the fans and the melody. It’s nothing to complain about, of course. It’s something to appreciate. Sometimes you have to stop and smile at the crowd. And give thanks.
“The thing I love most about music,” Roberge says, “is that even when I think I hate it, I’ll hear a song that will change my entire mind. A song will get in my head and remind me I’m alive, I’m human. Sometimes you just want to be blah. But then you realize this shit is magic.”