Five for Fighting is the musical alias of Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter and piano man John Ondrasik. He will perform this Saturday, Jan. 27, at the Uptown Theatre in Napa.
Ondrasik, who began recording in the late 1990s, is a throwback, a self-described “musical fuddy-duddy,” with his role models residing solidly in the 1970s. On the phone last week, he talked about his piano influences. “You’d have to start with Billy Joel and Elton John,” he said. “I also have to throw in Paul McCartney and Freddie Mercury from Queen.
“The first concert of my life, I was 15 1/2, and my mom took me to see Billy Joel. I’m not sure I’d be on the phone with you right now if I didn’t go to that show. We kind of completed the circle last year when I took her on Mother’s Day to see Billy Joel at Dodger Stadium.”
Ondrasik acknowledges the 1970s as the golden age of the singer/songwriter. “Whether it was piano or guitar, just go down the list,” he said, “Paul Simon, James Taylor, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell. When we moved into the ‘80s, music got a little more electronic. Certainly MTV coming onto the scene in many ways hurt the quality of the music, with image frankly more important to sales than craft.
“There’s a reason why you can’t go through your day without hearing a Beatles song or a Led Zeppelin song or one of those classic Billy Joel or Elton John songs. They were just prolific, incredible master songwriters, and that’s proven by how their songs have stood the test of time.”
Between 1997 and 2013, Five for Fighting released eight albums, including one live performance and one compilation. His most successful album was 2006’s “Two Lights.” His hit singles included “Superman,” which reached number one on the U.S. charts, “100 Years” and “The Riddle.”
Asked about the choice of “Five for Fighting” as his musical identity, Ondrasik characterized it initially as sarcasm. “It was the late ‘90s,” he said, “and the male singer/songwriter was basically dead. It was the age of boy bands, grunge music, Lilith Fair. The record company came to me and said, ‘You know, John, we’d like you to come up with a stage name or a band name, because we think we can market you better than as a piano playing singer/songwriter.’
“I was actually a little bit miffed at that. I had just come from an L.A. Kings hockey game where there were a few fights. I sarcastically said, well how about ‘five for fighting’ (the five-minute banishment to the penalty box for fisticuffs), expecting them to hate it. And they’re like, ‘We love it.’ I thought, ‘You guys are crazy,’ but as a sports fan and someone who cares more about the music than the person behind it, I was kind of OK with it.”
“It’s actually led to some pretty significant life experiences,” he added. “I’ve played at NHL All-Star games, at the 50th anniversary special for the NHL, at Dodger Stadium for the L.A. Kings. I think ‘John Ondrasik’ probably doesn’t play those gigs, but Five for Fighting does.”
Ondrasik described the upcoming Napa performance. “At the Uptown it’ll be just me and a string quartet,” he said. “About five years ago I started doing some symphony orchestra shows. It allowed me to pull songs from my catalog that I wouldn’t necessarily do with a rock band.
“We wanted to take that experience into smaller venues, so we’ve broken it down to a quartet. To hear “100 Years” or “Superman” or “The Riddle” with a string quartet is just a different experience. I think it’s a more musical experience, a permutation that people seem to enjoy.”
Unsolicited, Ondrasik talked about his affection for Napa Valley. “It is a very special place for me,” he said. “I’ve played Live in the Vineyards probably a half dozen times. I’ve done the Mondavi concert series. My brother-in-law is a winemaker and we spend a lot of time in Napa sourcing grapes.
“I know this has been such a tragic year with the fires. Please know that you guys are always in my heart. I look forward to seeing everybody.”
Saturday, Jan. 27, 8 p.m. $35-$45. Uptown Theatre Napa. 1350 Third St., Napa. 707-259-0123. UptownTheatreNapa.com.
Ottmar Liebert returning to Blue Note in February
Jazz guitar master Ottmar Liebert and his band, Luna Negra (Jon Gagan and Chris Steele), are returning to Blue Note Napa for six shows, Feb. 22-24. $25-$45. BlueNoteNapa.com.