By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
By Jena Ardell
By Mary Willson
By Bree Davies
As gigs go, singing the national anthem at a sporting event is the ultimate dream and nightmare. The upside is the thrill of belting out the nation's rallying cry to thousands of pumped-up countrymen and women, a rush no other gig can offer. The downside, of course, is the song itself. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a vocal-cord-mangler that stretches across two octaves, seemingly designed for only the most elastic voices. Francis Scott Key penned the song in 1814, and millions of statesiders have struggled with it ever since. Opie Gone Bad frontman Jake Schroeder, however, is one American who can rise to Key's heights, and his skill at doing so has earned him the slot as anthem man for home games of the Colorado Avalanche.
Watching Schroeder deliver the song, it's obvious why he got the gig. After making his way through the underbelly of the Pepsi Center -- acknowledging well-wishers along the way -- he steps to the edge of the arena's ice. The swirling player-introduction lights dim, and two hockey teams peel off the ice. Schroeder walks onto a short stretch of red carpet, steps on the Avalanche logo, leans onto his mike stand and begins: "Oo-oh, say, can you see?" As he wraps his muscular pipes around the first lines of the song, the crowd listens with quiet appreciation. His tone is husky, with a timbre as strong and All-American as Paul Bunyan. When he smolders past the reminder that "our flag was still there," fans howl in appreciation of that fact -- and Schroeder's rockets-red-glare delivery. As he marches up to the climax ("the laa-aand of the freeee"), the crowd explodes, raining approval down onto the ice. As Schroeder finishes the song and his voice fades into the rafters, it floats past a scoreboard video shot of his face, flanked by images of exploding fireworks and the stony faces on Mount Rushmore.
A few minutes later, Schroeder slips into a box seat to watch the game (a devout Avalanche supporter and hockey nut, he's paid for his vocal labor with free Avs tickets). A fan stops in, gives him a bear hug and offers a valid testimonial: "Nobody sings our country's song better than you do."
Performing before large crowds of Coloradans is nothing new for Schroeder or his bandmates (guitarist Randy Chavez, bassist Windall Armour and drummer Scott Davies). Over the past eight years, the act has transformed itself from a fledgling bar band to one of the most consistent draws in D-town. The band (its name is a reference to Schroeder's boyish appearance) now fills the largest area venues with fans hungry to wiggle to Opie's bottom-friendly funk. The group also generates the kind of pay and local CD sales many visiting national acts would be thrilled with.
If such achievements are the barometer of local musical success, Opie's achieved it. Yet the band is nagged by a certain drawback of hometown popularity: a lack of musical credibility. To some, Opie's commercial success is a sure sign that there's not much substance in the band's grooves. Part of that feeling could stem from the fact that among Opie's party-hearty faithful, the main goal seems to be schmoozing, grooving and exchanging sweat and phone numbers under the limelight. Opie's earlier work, including some uninspired cover material, may have also contributed to this lite reputation. Then again, among certain local players, the band's middleweight status could simply stem from sour grapes.
The idea that some would dismiss his group so easily raises at least a few hairs on Schroeder's buzz-cut cranium. But, he says, "we don't base our success on what anybody says or writes about us. It's like my singing the national anthem," he adds, noting a local sportswriter who has taken jabs at his version. "This guy's made a few comments in the paper, something about 'Where's Celine Dion when you need her?' Well, that guy's a punk, and I don't care what he thinks. And as far as our band goes, those are the kinds of comments we hear more and more of as we get more popular." The fact that Opie hasn't been featured in this publication is, to Shroeder, evidence that Opie's seen by some as mere dance-floor filler. A recent Westword piece, he points out, noted with surprise that Opie had beat out a local indie-label act in the popular vote for best pop/rock band in 1999's Westword Music Awards Showcase. "How can that be a surprise?" he asks. "I mean, the Apples are great, but when's the last time they played in town? When's the last time they sold out Herman's Hideaway? When's the last time they sold out a venue of more than 150 people? And I'm not belittling them or anybody else in what they do, and I'm not saying we're better than anybody else. But the numbers speak for themselves." His group might not appeal to cynical cognoscenti, he says, because it's "too poppy, we're not too terribly depressed, we play in tune most of the time and we have great chops. And we're not snotty enough.