On Saturday, April 30, RIT’s campus was alive, and the College Activities Board’s Spring Festival was in full bloom. Outside the Gordon Field House, a crowd had gathered to see the festival’s headliner, famed jam-band O.A.R. From far away, the distant thunder of drums sounded.
Inside, a small crowd had gathered as a tune from The Decemberists blasted through the stage’s PA system. As 8 p.m. drew near, the crowd began to grow silent.
Elizabeth & The Catapult
At 8:03 p.m., the lights dimmed and concertgoers rushed the floor in preparation for the night’s opening act, Elizabeth & the Catapult. Guitarist Dan Molad, a thin, curly-haired man with a hollow-body electric, began to play. After a moment’s silence, his sharp, crunchy guitar echoed throughout the Field House. He continued his solo for nearly a minute before front woman Elizabeth Zinman entered with her folksy, breathy vocals followed by calm electric piano and thundering, almost tribal drums. The audience stood still. Drenched in a deep blue light, one lone hand stood out in a sea of silence.
At that point, the Field House floor was about half full. While the crowd appeared to be enjoying itself, most chose to stand still or sit on the sidelines.
Between songs, Zinman chatted eagerly with the crowd. “This next song is dedicated to all my ex-boyfriends, not one excluded,” she announced before one particular tune, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “It’s called ‘Mama’s Boy.’”
Touring in support of their recent album “The Other Side of Zero,” the Brooklyn-based band played plenty of recent material. They also paid their respects to their influences with an emotional rendition of the traditional, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” with Zinman and Molad trading vocals.
Despite strong playing, and an initially warm reception, Elizabeth & the Catapult began to struggle with an increasingly uninterested audience. Towards the end of their set, the band seemed to acknowledge this, with Molad saying, “Two more songs and then you’ll have the night of your life.”
One of these songs, “Thank You for Nothing,” recently named one of NPR’s top breakup songs, featured Zinman alone on electric piano. “Thank you for loving and thank you for leaving me,” Zinman crooned gently, against the melancholy piano backdrop. The audience however, was lost in its own conversation, and she struggled to be heard over the din.
Elizabeth & the Catapult wrapped up their set just as puffs of smoke began to emanate from the crowd. The band finished their set amidst the crowd’s chants for O.A.R.
Between sets, there was roughly half an hour of downtime. While the crowd had been mostly quiet for the Catapults’ set, it livened up slightly. The volume of crowd chatter rose, the floor filled up, and a few brave souls began to crowd surf.
This buzz of activity turned into anticipation as the lights dimmed. To the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” O.A.R. took the stage. Standing under aqua-colored lights, the jangly strains of frontman Marc Roberge’s guitar filled the room as he began playing “Hey Girl.”
As a jam band, one of O.A.R.’s main draws is their versatility, something well demonstrated throughout the concert. The band covered a variety of styles, including ska, funk and soul. Roberge and guitarist Richard On played off of each other’s riffs effortlessly. Drummer Chris Culos provided a dizzying array of drumbeats. The one constant, Mikel Paris’ soaring organ parts provided the solid backing for other members’ experimentation.
Known for their long jams, the band aimed to cover as much material as possible. “Sorry if we’re rushing; we just want to get through a lot of songs,” commented Roberge. Though the set was comprised of mostly lively, energetic tunes, the band played a few slower pieces. During one particular torch song, a sea of cell phones — and even a few lighters — emerged.
The performance was clearly nostalgic, and the band leaned towards their earlier material, such as “That Was a Crazy Game of Poker,” “Night Shift” and “About an Hour Ago.” Between songs, Roberge would tell stories of their origins, which involved drummers’ basements and late-night strokes of inspiration.
In light of an upcoming album, set for release later this year, O.A.R. also revisited a few newer hits, such as “Shadowed” and “This Town.” During the latter, the crowd really came alive. By the time the chorus hit and the lights swept the audience, nearly every hand was waving in the air.
Throughout the event, one concertgoer standing towards the front of the crowd had been holding up half of a pizza box with a message scribbled on it. Although Roberge joked with this fan throughout the set, the reason remained unclear until late in the concert, when the band obliged his request to play “Light Switch Sky,” a lesser-known tune they had co-written with fans. While he may have gotten his wish, the pizza box stayed up.
The lights went out and the band walked off stage. Fans began to chant for an encore. Initially slowly and hesitantly, they began calling out the band’s name.
At first, only keyboardist Paris appeared on stage, followed by Roberge. Comprised of three songs, the encore was longer than most. Then something strange happened: The crowd began to dance. Tentatively at first, the crowd had broken into an all-out groove by the song’s end.
From there, the encore began to grow, becoming almost another mini-show in and of itself. Rather than fading slowly away, it seemed O.A.R. would rather end with a powerful bang.
This bang came during “Lay Down,” the evening’s closer. During an unexpected drum break, Paris and saxophonist Jerry DePizo grabbed drums of their own, working with drummer Culos to craft intense polyrhythms. Everything built up to one rare moment, where everything on stage merged into one giant wall of sound. As the band’s final hit reverberated through Gordon Field House, the lights flickered back to life, ending nearly two solid hours of jamming. Just as quickly as it had begun, the evening ended and the group’s fans walked out into the night.