Star-Spangled Bad Boy
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.
"This band is all about great playing, creating energy and having a good time," he says. "I'm no great poet, and there's nothing new about writing a song about your daughter or a relationship that's hard. And the style of music that we do is not that new, but it's done real well. This band is train-wreck-proof, and I think our chops go right by people. I'm blessed to play with these guys. They're some of the best players in town, and fortunately for me, what I do works really well with them."
Schroeder's work on the local music scene began several years ago. A Boulder native, he launched his first singing group, the Wayfarers, while in high school. He then spent five years honing his love for the vocals of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and other soul legends in another a cappella group, the 17th Avenue All-Stars. In 1992 he formed Opie Gone Bad, with the idea of re-creating the horn-blessed power and punch of the Stax-Volt era. After a few years and numerous personnel changes, the band evolved into an original act that eschewed vintage touches for modern ones. In 1997 the group released its debut, Opie Gone Bad, to capitalize on its growing fan base in such Denver clubs as Herman's Hideaway and Brendan's. The band endured a few testy personnel changes two years ago, replacing its rhythm section with Davies and Armour. Last year Opie gained a higher profile as the house band of sorts for the Avalanche -- whose players Schroeder met in his bartending job at the Denver ChopHouse -- when it performed between periods of the hockey matches and got the kind of exposure local bands dream of.
The band's new release could soften the opinions of the group's detractors. OGB II is a smartly produced offering of guitar-driven funk rock, knee-deep dance tunes and snippets of sugared-but-smart pop. The record's more heated parts stick like solder, and its sharp edges please both the brain and the boo-tay. "Straight Back" begins the disc with Armour's gurgling bass lines pushing against Schroeder's winking rapid-fire vocals, which set up a blistering, to-the-point solo from Chavez. "Angel" is a perfect-for-radio jewel highlighted by melodic treats from Chavez. Other bright spots on II include the whisper-to-a-scream funk of "Big Mess" and the snaky boast of "Bad for You." "Trash Compactor" is spanked into place by Davies's commanding wallop, and "Monkey Love" ends the CD with a serving of extra-chunky funk and King Kong-sized hooks. Taken as a whole, it's an impressive amalgamation of pop sunshine, alt-rock funk, sharp songs and Schroeder's sinewy singing.
The release is likely to further cement the group's sprawling area fan base, which has regularly packed its longstanding home at Herman's with close to a thousand bodies at each gig. That arrangement, however, has come to an end. This Saturday the band will take the stage at what it hopes will be its new base, the Gothic Theatre. Schroeder is reluctant to discuss the reasons for the change of venue, but he says it had to do with the band's desire to earn pay more commensurate with its drawing power and an itch to play on new turf. "We outgrew the place -- that's all I want to say about it," he says, adding that he has the utmost respect for Herman's owner Allen Roth and his staff. "I love those guys," he notes. "But sometimes a little kick in the ass is good for everybody. I know we're going to have to work harder to draw a crowd to the Gothic, and that's got to be good for us.
"Everybody in this band has two or three jobs, and we work our butts off so we can play this music," Schroeder adds. "And I'm not ashamed of that, or ashamed of being popular in Denver. I know we're not going to be popular forever, and that's the way it goes. But every year I ask myself, 'Are we progressing?' And we're absolutely progressing. This year we're looking at being gone more than we're here, and that's progress." Schroeder says Opie will soon be increasing its jaunts out of town to one per month and stretching the length of those trips from a handful of days to a few weeks.
Meanwhile, Schroeder will continue his anthem duties at the Pepsi Center, where it's clear he's Mr. Avalanche, even though he's never donned the team's uniform. He spends a good share of his hockey-watching time being approached by Pepsi Center visitors who gush about his vocal efforts. A pair of teenage girls who have been eyeing him during the game eventually brave an introduction; Shroeder politely signs autographs for the two high-schoolers. He handles it all with gracious enthusiasm and diplomacy. Is being a nice guy important? "Yeah, I think it is," Schroeder says. "I don't know what I can do to get a major label to want to sign our band, but I know that I can work hard and treat people well -- I can do that as a musician. We have the greatest, nicest fans in the world who'll do anything for us. I don't forget that." Local artists and friends Big Head Todd and the Monsters, he notes, serve as role models of sorts. "They're great guys, modest and humble," he says. "And the press continues to say some of the meanest things about them, yet they just continue to be successful and to be good. How can you not root for someone like that?"
Of course, having close to 20,000 hand-over-their-hearts people root for you more than forty nights a year can't hurt Schroeder and his band's own run at the major leagues. "It's a brutal song to sing, man," Schroeder says of the anthem. "I try to keep it pretty straight when I sing it. I mean, it's not about me, and it's not my song. I'm singing it for the guys that fought in WWII and Vietnam." Guys like his father, who served in southeast Asia and heard the anthem every time the body bags were laid out on the air-base tarmacs of Vietnam before being shipped home for burial. "I'd go to games with my dad when I was a kid," Schroeder recalls, "and they'd do the national anthem, and he'd get all choked up. I'd sit there and think, 'What's with that?'" Before he died, the elder Schroeder told his son about his in-country experiences and why the tune brought on tears. "I guess that's kind of a shlocky story," Schroeder says, "but it's one of the reasons I love singing the national anthem. I'm a patriotic guy."
Leaving the arena following the conclusion of the Avalanche game, Schroeder acknowledges that his anthem gig has helped him and his mates build a larger following. But he's careful about not making too much of the job. Opie Gone Bad passed on performing live at the Pepsi Center this year, he notes, in part because the new facility had no stage area for it to perform on and because the band wanted to avoid possible saturation among hockey fans. (The band's tune, "Let's Go Avalanche," and an accompanying music video, are still broadcast on the scoreboard at each game.) "I don't want to wear out our welcome here and have people get sick of us," he says. Such concerns might be unwarranted. As Schroeder walks up a LoDo street alongside a stream of departing post-hockey game cars, a young woman's cheer-ravaged voice roars out a passing car. "Opie rocks!" she screams.
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