Many times in my three decades of life in this city, I have heard residents complain about a general lack of variety in our local culture. From a seemingly endless string of chain restaurants and Wal-Marts to national live concerts that rarely stretch past hair metal and country, the populace grumbles that unique offerings are virtually nonexistent. While I have been guilty of making the same complaints from time to time, especially concerning music, we whiners have something to shut up about.
The Orange Opera, led by songwriter and lead singer Kevin Hambrick, brings the best echoes of popular music from yesterday and effectively blends them with today's eclectic indie rock elements to create a new sound that would be difficult to assign to a certain target age demographic.
Unconventionally good bands often have equally unconventional beginnings, and The Orange Opera is no exception. All of the members of the band (including original guitarist Matt Tackett) worked at venerable northeast Fort Wayne institution Toenges Shoes at one time in their lives. Aside from the shoes, the beginnings of what is today known as The Orange Opera started five years ago when drummer Kevin Hockaday (formerly of Fort Wayne ska favorites Heavy Step) and Kevin Hambrick (formerly of Issue Green, Donny Flanigan, Blueberry Hurricane, Big Red and Rojo, along with various other solo endeavors) met through mutual friend John Murray. Murray lived in a house with Hockaday and bass player Bryan Brubaker, member of the local jazz fusion band Master Zod. After their initial meeting, Hockaday and Hambrick bonded over their love of music and shared situation of being musicians without a band.
After spending some time playing together at Hockaday's house, Hambrick was introduced to Hockaday's housemate Bryan Brubaker, who, with an almost cinematic magic, grabbed his bass and immediately joined in the jam session. That first meeting produced two songs that would go on to be originals that the band would cover on their first gig, a mere two weeks after forming. After the addition of Brubaker to their fledgling music collective, Hockaday encouraged Hambrick to play piano (which he had played prior to mastering acoustic guitar) and the melodic keyboard-centered sound that today permeates The Orange Opera's material was born.
People who have followed Hambrick's music career might have initially been confused when The Orange Opera took the stage as a piano-bass-drum trio. Well before the current band existed, Hambrick had played under that moniker when doing acoustic sets with former Blue Moon Boys bassist Jerry Sparkman. When the Hambrick-Brubaker-Hockaday musical unit took off, Hambrick started referring to them in public as The Orange Opera, and the name has stuck with them to this day.
The Orange Opera played their first 2-1/2 years as a trio, gigging on a regular basis and working out new material for the studio. At that time the guys tossed around the idea of adding a guitarist, with the hope of allowing Hambrick more freedom to experiment with various other instruments rather than just keeping the melody going on the piano. Brubaker suggested they ask Tackett, former guitar player for Master Zod, to help fill out their vision of a wall of sound. Tackett soon joined the band full-time and remained a member of the band, contributing to live shows and recording through early 2007, when he departed the group to work on other projects.
While Hambrick has all of the songwriting credit for Land of Tall, The Orange Opera's first long-player, he insists that each member of the band added their flavor to tracks in the studio: "We freely expanded on different aspects of each tune. Bryan Brubaker was and is an amazing bass player who is always in tune with what I am writing. He always encourages the development of my new songs. Kevin Hockaday is a great drummer and has always been willing to listen to ideas I already have for drums without throwing sticks at me and saying, 'Why don't you just play drums?' They both have always been open to the ideas I have already sketched out before getting together as a group with them."
The Orange Opera's Land of Tall, released in spring of 2006, was recorded during various sessions occurring over the span of a few months. The band's current lineup, along with Tackett, cut their tracks with the guidance of producers (and former Hambrick collaborators) Javier Bayouth and Jason Davis who created a distinctly polished yet organic-sounding record. Hambrick, when speaking of The Orange Opera's future in the studio, insists that their next full-length album will be recorded with a digital four-track at his in-home studio and will be a product of his constant experimentation with sound.
When it comes to his music, Hambrick does not really worry about what is popular with mainstream American listeners. Still, he is definitely not a stranger to radio-friendly hooks and deceptively simple-sounding melodies. Fans of The Orange Opera and Hambrick as a solo artist know that, besides writing his own music and playing piano and guitar, Hambrick also plays bass, drums, harmonica, accordion and what he says are "effects on a cheap keyboard hooked directly into a four-track recorder."
With all of the pop sensibility and complex musicality of Hambrick's work, his use of major-to-minor chord structure and upbeat songs used to convey a variety of emotions have often been compared to the likes of The Zombies and The Beatles. Hambrick really does not mind the comparison.
"Saying we sound like the greatest bands ever is an awesome compliment," he says. "I can't help it; they are in my blood. I can't help but be influenced by them." Recently, The Orange Opera paid tribute to the Fab Four by performing a set of Beatles' tunes at Down the Line, a fundraising concert for the Embassy Theater, with many of Fort Wayne's best musicians contributing sets by various artists. As a result of the concert The Orange Opera have now added a permanent block of Beatles covers to the end of their almost-exclusively original music set. The band has even been joined recently by Stu Hambrick, Kevin's brother, who fills out the Beatles sound during their crowd-pleasing encore.
The Orange Opera's greatest pop music influence may be The Beatles, but Hambrick admits that the band's sound is a rich mix, spanning various genres and time periods. Badfinger is often used as a reference point when speaking about the band, as is 70's era Billy Joel, a particular favorite of Hambrick's. Still, more recent bands like Dinosaur Jr., Jellyfish, Wilco and Dr. Dog have been leaving a mark on The Orange Opera's music. Dr. Dog, a five-piece rock and soul band from Philadelphia, has specifically impacted the band's sound. In an ironic turn of events, The Orange Opera have, in a way, connected with the band too: "Life Wasn't Fair," a cut from Hambrick's most recent solo offering, Football Weather, is currently part of Dr. Dog's pre-show music. Obviously and not surprisingly, Hambrick and The Orange Opera's sound is not staying contained in the Midwest alone.
In the coming months, The Orange Opera plan to begin work on their follow-up to Land of Tall. Still, with so much going on musically, it is not a chance of fame or riches that inspires Hambrick.
"My hope is that our music will be something that people will want to hear 20 years from now," he says. "I hope we can be both unique and timeless because that's the best musical legacy to leave behind."