A Home Run: Five for Fighting with Josh Kelley, at the Pageant
By
Kate Healy
11/13/2006 9:14:31 AM

It was an amazing thing to see on the night of World Series Game 5: every guy in the pit of St. Louis’ The Pageant attentive and amused as singer/songwriter Josh Kelley cracked jokes and belted out songs with a lovable energy that sucked everyone in. The audience drank up every second of his act before the main attraction, the sold-out Five for Fighting. Of course Cardinal curiosity hung in the air and, (thank goodness…) updates were given throughout the night.

Though Josh Kelley is no A-Lister, he has the makings of one, with four records and great stage presence. He rightly used his stage time to push material from his new album, Just Say the Word [Threshold Records]. If no one else is gonna say that word, then we’ll say it in two: pure entertainment. Two stools and a pair of guitars was all that Kelley and playing partner Darwin Johnson needed to make things happen. Kelley’s voice is strong and able while Johnson’s harmonies were moving and smooth, creating simple yet somehow overwhelming music.

Though Kelley has formally been placed in the Folk genre, his music is anything but old fashioned and quiet. When the songs were upbeat Kelley and Johnson were all over it, their energy never waned and the humor never ran out. Kelley even busted into Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” just because he was proud to have learned the song earlier that day, replacing some of the verses with improve: “I like red bull vodka”…. “my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard”…. and “my guitar is really outta tune, its really ticking me off!” However, when it was time to slow it down, for “Just Say the Word”, the passion was obvious. He felt every twist and turn of the music in his movements and let loose a voice that struck the crowd with chills.

While this twenty-two year old can certainly play and sing he’s also got quite a brain, an expert in how to work a crowd. As a humble contributor he was very in control of his own show and most importantly, although wasn’t trying to be the star, he came off as one.

Somehow the evening would just get better. In such a venue like the Pageant, the Five For Fighting concert experience was impressive and endearing. On the dark stage, all eyes immediately focused on John Ondrasik, singer of Five for Fighting, as he sat down at the pitch black piano and lifted his hands…his way of greeting audience, with a song:

“Let's start at the start/ Build a masterpiece/ Be careful what you wish for/ History starts now...”

These are lines from “World,” and with a sweep of his hand the lights came up, flooding the stage. The moment was effective, provoking mass sighs of happiness and cheers of relief. The song picked up, with John playing effortlessly and singing freely. With a seamless transfer into falsetto voice, the Cardinals game now seemed very far away.

This show really didn’t get too fancy—and that wasn’t a requirement. The stories and talent that unfolded onstage were real enough. John crafted a compelling set, reeling in his crowd with songs like “Superman” and “The Riddle” which constantly ride the radio waves. But for the songs on his new album Two Lights [Sony], there was always a story to be told, reinforcing respect for John’s writing. Each creative melody seemed so personal to him and at the same time very relevant for each person on the floor. Each story was beautifully human and such stories put to music only amplified the bliss.

John Ondrasik is a lovable performer, with his fairly country, bouncing body movements and efforts to get the crowd clapping. His smile lasted through the night, and he continually infected the crowd with his good nature. However, it’s obvious that for him, the role of father comes before celebrity singer/songwriter. Almost everything he said onstage concerned his two young children. In one instance he explained, “I had some very talented co-writers for this song, a six year old and a five year old…” As the crowd laughed he went on, “My daughter helped write this song late one night while on the phone, she wrote the chorus. It’s called “I just love you…” Sure enough the chorus was those pure words, “I just love you”, again and again. A jam session was also a highlight, with John going around to each band member and guitars neck and neck, vamping to the beat he set. Soon after, he took the mic and introduced another father/child song, “Two Lights”: “I found myself in California one day and I met a father and a son. The father was a Vietnam vet and his son was a 23-year-old lieutenant going back to Iraq for his second tour. I was sitting across from the dad and finally got the courage to ask him how he was doing with all this, his son was leaving in a couple days. Now I’ll never forget the look in his eye. He kinda sat back and he looked at me and he said ‘You know it’s hard on his mom.’ Well, obviously it was hard on him too. And I saw a look in his eye that struck me. I saw obviously, fear, that anyone would feel for someone we know going into that situation much less, a child, but I also saw this immense pride that he had in his boy who was going to save the world. So, in this song a father hears that a member of his son’s unit has been killed. He doesn’t know if it’s his son or not, so he goes for a drive and he tells his wife, ‘If you find out he’s okay leave me two lights on when I get home’ ” The first chord comes crashing down, and a chilling sensation reverberates through the crowd that had been silent all along. “What is courage? Is it brave?” is the first line, sung high and soft.

The next climax of the night was the song “100 Years,” which everyone had been waiting for. As if the night needed a perfect end, a tech assistant ran onstage before the last verse to give John a message. And before we could guess otherwise, John shouted into the microphone right over the keys, “Cardinals win!”

 

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