Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

The Orange Opera

Greg W. Locke

Whatzup Features Writer

Published September 6, 2007

Heads Up! This article is 15 years old.

The French philosopher JacquesMaritain once said, “The only artist who does not deserve respect is theone who works to please the public.” Four left turns later Bob Dylanclaimed that “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” Those are what we callsharp words, the kinds of statements that cut the fat, fray the expectationsand leave the art, raw and lucid, on the floor where it thrives.

What are we talking about here?Music. Art. Pop. Lifeblood. Jazz. Rock n’ roll. We’re talking about the crude,uncorrupted form of what some consider to be the backbone of culture andcommunication. We’re talking about when you were eight years old and firststarted noticing emotional reactions to the Beatles or James Brown or DollyParton or Miles Davis albums your parents had been filtering through your dailyroutine for years. We’re talking about that first cassette single you pickedout and wore thin. We’re not talking about competition or money or fame. Likethe Mike of Mills and Stipe, we’re talking ’bout the passion.

Spend a few weeks in any citywith at least a couple hundred thousand inhabitants and you’re bound to findsome sort of notable music scene, be it emergent, limping or already established.Just 10 years ago Fort Wayne ‘s scene was limping along, direly in need of adependable conduit specifically designed to help the area’s scattered musicianscome together and build a supportive, collaborative network of artists. Thetime since has seen Fort Wayne’s music-minded folks rise to the surface, movingright past the thriving stage and fast into the established. And whether youlike the concept of art-as-competition or not, the annual whatzup Battle of the Bands has playeda part in this progression, along the way growing in quality each year sinceits induction four years ago and offering countless bands a chance to get theirart out of the basement. (This year’s crowds numbered over 100 every night,reaching well over 300 more than once and around 400 for the finals.)

After last year’s marathon55-band BotB III, whatzup opted to go the economicalroute for this year’s event, accepting only 35 bands and spreading the durationof the competition out over 15 Thursday nights, rather than the whopping 27 theprevious year saw. The result was a more cohesive, better attended BotB seasonthat saw largely unknown bands like Greater Midwest Identity Theft, TheB-Sharps and Under the Wake more than doubling their crowds and first-placevote totals by the time it was all said and done.

Sure, there were the usualconspiracy theories (“the voting is rigged!”), surprises (Left LaneCruiser once again bowing out early, despite favorable judge scores), breakoutbands (Kan-tis) and classic moments (Sankofa tearing up copies of whatzup on stage not being amongthem), but in the end – on the final night – there were four bandswho could not be denied. Four bands with completely different sounds, fan basesand approaches. It was a rowdy, unforgettable night, and, against almosteveryone’s wildest dreams, audiophile favorites The Orange Opera walked out ontop, odds smashed to pieces behind them and dumbfounded smiles on their sweatyfaces.

“We didn’t really actuallypractice once specifically for the Battle of the Bands,” said Operafrontman Kevin Hambrick, not so much revealing his secret as he was speaking inhis usual candid, honest manner. “We’ve been playing so many shows that wehaven’t really been practicing at all,” continued Hambrick, who found thetime to sit down with whatzup during a Labor Day weekendthat saw his band playing four hour sets on both Friday and Saturday nightsfollowing their Thursday win, as well as on Labor Day itself.

A project over five years in theworks, The Orange Opera entered BotB IV as a trio (drummer Kevin Hockaday andbassist Brian Brubaker rounding out the lineup) before adding Definitely Garydrummer Jon Ross on guitar only two weeks before their first-round appearance.”We’d been trying out guitar players here and there for awhile,” saidHambrick. “Then Jon came in and seemed to know things about our songs thatI didn’t even know. He could sing the harmonies and pretty much already playall the songs, so it worked out very easily.”

Sounds like a winning bulletpoint for any band’s bio: multi-instrumentalist joins band; doesn’t really needto practice because he already knows the songs; starts playing at every show;helps win Battle of the Bands competition. Speaking of bios, The Orange Opera’shas undeniably doubled in length in 2007 alone.

“Everything started tochange after I lost my job in January,” explained an animated, excitedHambrick. “Between playing at the Embassy, meeting Dr. Dog (more aboutthat later), adding Jon to the band, going on our first mini-tour, bringing TheTeeth to Fort Wayne, winning the Battle of the Bands, meeting Jeff Tweedy andnow this upcoming Dr. Dog show, this has been the best year yet for me and mymusic.”

Not to imply that there is acertain kind of band that thrives during BotB competitions, but many weresurprised to hear that The Orange Opera had signed up for this year’s event.”We just signed up to sign up,” said Hambrick. “We decided tojust try it for fun, thinking we’d get kicked out every night. We figured we’dend up in 18th place, at best.”

Trying to understand whyHambrick thought his band of long-respected players (Brubaker has played invarious bands though the years; Hockaday was a member of the classic Fort Wayneband, Heavy Step; and Ross has been known to be a member of up to seven bandsat once, last year’s BotB winner, Definitely Gary, among them) wouldn’t stand achance might seem confusing at first. The difference is in scope. While mostlocal bands who enter BotB seem focused on growing their local fan base as muchas possible, The Orange Opera consider themselves to be a band who just happento operate out of Fort Wayne. Yes, they have a lot of fans in Fort Wayne, butnot a tight-knit scene of diehard regulars for which the other three finalists(Waking Abbott, Pleasing Melani, Action Jaxson) are known. The Opera prosperedregardless of their seemingly apathetic-in-comparison approach to BotB, earningnew fans and further cementing their reputation as one of the area’s bestbands.

“We’re all really committedto being a serious band,” said Hambrick. “As far as winning goes, Idon’t know. Bru told me that he thinks it’s the songs. ‘We just have reallygood songs’ is what he said to me, and I think he’s right; we won because ofour songs.”

“What’s amazing is that TheOrange Opera won without playing the Battle of the Bands game,” explainedone avid onlooker who asked to remain anonymous. “They didn’t enterbecause they wanted to be on the cover of whatzup or win prize money; they entered because they likeplaying their music. They left the rest up to the crowd and judges, and hey,look, it worked somehow! A band with really awesome songs won simply becausetheir songs are that good.”

While researching similar BotBcompetitions from around the country, it became clear that there is in fact acertain kind of band who usually dominate these sorts of competitions:”party bands,” bands that go out, put on a good show, play songspeople can dance or mosh or riot to and, of course, look really cool on stage.The Orange Opera are different.

“We joke that we’re themost unattractive band in town,” quipped Hambrick. “But we have 40-45Orange Opera originals that we can play pretty well, songs people haven’t evenheard yet in some cases.”

It’s not that The Orange Operaaren’t know for their live shows. Clearly, they are; but more so, they come offas artists who favor the process of writing, recording and releasing good,strong records with a warm, timeless feel. They love to play live, but it’stheir valuing of the creation process that makes them different, whether peopleat Columbia Street West ever hear their records – which resemble the Nuggets box set more than anythingelse – or not. Simply, it was their desire to go out and have fun playingtheir songs – not ever trying to win anything – that did the trick.That, and the fact that their songs really are as good as everyone says theyare.

And then there’s also that wholething about 2007 being the year of The Orange Opera.

“How come everybody neverwants to take a chance on me,” sings a clever Hambrick on “Crying InMy Sleep,” a track from his guitar-based 2001 Blueberry Hurricane album. That line resonatestoday, as Hambrick continues working to find new ways to take his band and hismusic to the next level. Despite years of trying, always cracking shells alongthe way, Hambrick remains optimistic that he will someday get his break.”My wife says that most people seem luckier when they’re younger, and thatshe thinks I’m getting lucky as I get older. I hope she’s right.”

The way things have been lookinglately, it seems she just might be.

“[Wilco singer/songwriter]Jeff Tweedy has a copy of my CD, and Doug Gillard [of Guided by Voices fame]wrote me and told me he likes my music. Dr. Dog told me that ‘Life Wasn’t Fair'(from Hambrick’s recent solo album, Football Weather) is the song of the year,” said Hambrickin an excited but still modest way. “I just can’t figure out what it takesto get signed; I think I just need someone smarter than me to help make ithappen.”

This statement led Hambrick and whatzup to the smartest cat on the block:the Internet. After discussing various possible avenues of national exposure– Daytrotter, Aquarium Drunkard, Luna Music, etc. – we foundourselves exploring Dr. Dog’s website and watching Sonic Youth videos onYouTube. “We used to play that song [Sonic Youth’s grunge classic,”100%”] when it first came out,” said Hambrick, much to thiswriter’s excitement.

“You’re going to end uptalking about how you tried to interview me and all I talked about was Dr.Dog,” laughed Hambrick after taking whatzup on a full tour of the Philadelphia band’s amazingwebsite. “I can’t shut up about Dr. Dog lately.”

And rightfully so. Hambrick,Hockaday and Brubaker caught the band responsible for one of the year’s verybest albums, WeAll Belong,earlier in the year. It was a moment, one would have to presume, where TheOrange Opera saw their future. Dr. Dog – a modest band from a modestmusic city who record brilliant songs that bring to mind the smoky barroomsound of the 70s – have also had their biggest year yet, appearingregularly in national music publications, playing the whole of the late-nighttalk-show circuit and touring with a little band named Wilco. Kindered spirits.

“I just love their music somuch,” said Hambrick, who along with Wooden Nickel booked the band for alow-dough, all-ages show at Sunset Music Hall on Sunday, October 7 to celebratethe Nickel’s 25th anniversary. The Opera (as well as Apollo Sunshine) are setto open the show, which promises to be one of the biggest nights for Fort Waynemusic fans all year long.

So what’s next for Hambrick andThe Orange Opera?

“I already have my nextsolo album, SugarcoatedScribbles,finished, I just need the money to put it out,” said Hambrick, who went onto explain how The Opera have been talking here and there about whether or notthey should record in a studio or DIY-style at the Hambrick household. As faras the prize money ($1,500), gift certificate ($1,500 at Sweetwater Sound) andrecording time won (36 hours at Monastic Chambers) go, Hambrick seemed a bitindifferent, admitting that the band isn’t quite sure yet what they’ll do withtheir winnings. “We might get a smaller PA, or Kevin might get some newdrums, or Brian might get a new amp, or I might get a new pack of guitar picksevery day for the next few years,” laughed Hambrick, who later impliedthat he thinks getting a new Opera album out before the end of the year mightbe a good idea. “We have a lot of songs; we just have to figure out whatto do with them.”

One thing’s for sure: this wasthe best BotB season yet, and, as it should be, the band who won just happen tobe having (by far) their best year to date. With the Dr. Dog show on the horizonand the possibility of a new Opera studio album in the air, don’t expectHambrick, Hockaday, Brubaker and Ross to slow down any time soon.

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