Will perform at Artpark July 11 as part of the Barenaked Ladies’ ‘Last Summer on Earth Tour’
By Joshua Maloni
Myriad hit singles will echo down the Niagara River on July 11 when the Barenaked Ladies return to Artpark with “The Last Summer on Earth Tour.” But one song will be especially poignant in light of continuing hostility in Ukraine.
Five For Fighting (aka John Ondrasik) will perform “Can One Man Save the World,” music he originally released almost one year ago while in Kyiv. He teamed with the Ukrainian Orchestra for the song, which he said was inspired by the courage of President Vladimir Zelenskyy.
This initiative is the latest in a series of Ondrasik’s philanthropic exercises.
“It actually started with Afghanistan. I'd written a song, after the withdrawal, kind of critical of the withdrawal; and it became, actually, a song – a voice – for many of our Afghan veterans who were just devastated that we abandoned their allies and Americans,” Ondrasik said in a recent Zoom interview. “And in this crazy world, I started getting emails from people trapped in Afghanistan, Americans reaching out to me. So, I found myself embedded with many of these NGOs: Project Exodus Relief, Operation Pineapples (Operation Pineapple Express), Save Our Allies, who are actively rescuing Americans and our allies.
“Working with them, again, I saw some incredible heroic acts, tragedy, all that you can imagine. But when the war in Ukraine started, they moved some of their operations to Ukraine to do humanitarian work there. So, I'd written this song ‘Can One Man Save the World.’ And again, just kind of very early in the war, when you'll remember the first week that the mercenaries were hunting Zelenskyy and he said, ‘I may not be here in 24 hours.’ So, I actually wrote a song, recorded it, put it out – piano and vocal – I've never done that – because I didn't know if the guy would survive the week.
John Ondrasik and the Ukrainian Orchestra in front of the Mriya. (Photo provided by 37-Media)
“And of course, it wasn't just about Zelenskyy, it was about kind of the world, and freedom, and Churchill, and all the things we've kind of known through history. And the song got some traction, and I thought, you know, it might be nice to go to Poland and play the song with the Polish Orchestra, because Poland was the first prime minister to go to Kyiv and stand with Zelenskyy, and they took 4 million refugees. And I'm like, ‘This might be a nice shot in the arm for Poland, and recognize their compassion and humanitarian efforts.’
“So, I reached out to a friend in the media, who had a lot of relationships over there, and suggested the idea, and she said, ‘Let me call you back.’ And she called me back. I was actually out with the string quartet, and she called me back and said, ‘How would you like to go to Ukraine, and play the song with Ukrainian Orchestra?’
“My first reaction was, ‘Are you serious?’ But I knew this person is not someone who would joke about that. And I said, ‘Do they even exist?’ And she said, ‘Well, you know, they're scattered across the country, but the ministry wants you to do it. Zelenskyy wants you to do it. There's a million things we have to line up, security, blah, blah, blah. But we think it could happen.’
“And, again, long story short, I was on the road with my string quartet and got an email after our gig, with a plane ticket to Krakow the next day, and, as you can imagine, I had a long chat with my wife that night. Who said, ‘OK, don’t love it, but OK.’ And off we went.
“In total, a 48-hour kind of adventure to just get to Kyiv. We thought we'd be playing in the subway, because that's where most people play because of the air raids. You don't want to be setting up and playing, here's an air raid, you have to cancel the shoot. But Zelenskyy and the ministry, they wanted us to play in a significant place, with this orchestra, and they approved us playing at the Antonov Airport, the bombed-out hangar where the symbol of Ukrainian independence, the Mriya, their cargo plane – that's actually on the patch of their army uniforms – had been blown up by Putin at the beginning of the year.
“They wanted to put us in front of that plane, in this kind of wreckage, to play. And I thought the symbolism was significant, and we were honored to do that. And there we were, you know, playing with this amazing orchestra.”
Almost a year later, Ondrasik is still emotional about the experience.
“There was a moment that encapsulated the trip for me,” he explained. “We were running some takes, and I noticed out of the corner of my eye an entourage of military garb walking towards us. Turns out it was the general who approved it. And we kind of, through a translator, spoke a little bit. He said, ‘Thanks for coming.’ I said, ‘It's an honor to be here.’ And he said something that, again, I'll never forget. He said, ‘Let me hear the song.’ And so, you could see the orchestra kind of stiffen. It was kind of like, for them, it was like kind of Schwarzkopf coming to see them. He's the face of kind of the publicity for the war, and so they were very moved. And they started playing, and you could see their passion and the tears. And you can see the general’s entourage, these big ‘Rambo’ dudes, you know, with AKs and beards down to here, like putting on their sunglasses because they were getting a little misty.
“At the end of that performance, there was this silence that seemed probably like two weeks, that was probably 10 seconds, but you felt the weight of where we were. Every member of that orchestra had either lost someone, had someone on the front lines, or somebody missing; and this country, kind of under this David versus Goliath attack. But the fortitude of many of these orchestra members in their 50s, 60s and 70s, who still remember the Russian occupation.
“It was very heavy, and it kind of gave us the sense that our purpose was valid, to go there and try to share their story through this song. And that's all I was trying to do, is share their story through this song. And I wish every American, everyone in the world, could have stood in my shoes and been in that country. I think maybe some of the opinions on Ukraine might be a little different.
“But as musicians, you know, that's what we do. We try to lend our platform for causes that matter to us.”
Ondrasik shared more and previewed his Artpark show in this edited Q&A.
Five For Fighting photo by Mike Donahue // courtesy of 37-Media
Q: You are coming up to play at our award-winning Artpark in Lewiston, New York. It's a great venue. It's right on the water. You'll be able to take a peek over and look into Canada that night.
The press release your team sent said you haven't been here in a while. I don't know the last time you were in the Buffalo area, but is there something you recall about playing in this market, for these fans, or is there something you're looking forward to when you return?
John Ondrasik: I've had great experiences in Buffalo, and I actually was in town maybe five years ago – right before the pandemic. Playing actually in Niagara, a very small, kind of quartet show, in one of the casinos. It was great. My hotel room overlooked the falls, and I sat there every night with a glass of wine.
I know you hear this every day, but it's like, I tell everybody, if you haven't seen the falls in your life, it has to be on your bucket list. It never gets old.
And of course, with all the Sabre fans, you know, we have a lot of hockey talk. And I do remember I probably had the best barbecue of my life in Buffalo. I wish I remembered the place, I'd shout it out for them. And I've been everywhere. I've been to Kansas City. I've been to Texas.
I love the neck of your woods. My wife's from Long Island; my daughter's living in New York; so, to come upstate and hang with you guys – and all my band members are Canadian, so they’ll be able to look at their families across the river.
Q: So, this is in Lewiston, as I said, and there is an 80-year-old custard stand here in town that's actually forged a unique relationship with the Barenaked Ladies. They actually named a flavor for them a couple years ago – and then when they were in town last summer, they popped by for a little impromptu set. That was fun.
John Ondrasik: Well, that’ll be on our bucket list. I’ll let the guys know. Maybe we'll wander over with BNL, and we can have some BNL custard.
Q: We have a good time with Barenaked Ladies when they come to town. What do you like about playing with those guys? What attracted you to this tour, and what are you excited about?
John Ondrasik: Well, this is the first time we're doing a tour with them. We’ve played some radio shows and we have common friends, similar agents. I've always been a fan of theirs. We actually have this weird piece of trivia that we were both on the “Chicken Little” soundtrack in 2006. So, we have that odd connection.
As I said, always been a fan of the music. They're known for one of the best live shows in the world. Also, they're just great people. And as I said, my drummer, Randy (Cooke) and Pete Thorn, our guitar player, legend – Canadian guys. And we usually do headlining tours, but the last few years, with COVID, I've been doing much more kind of quartet solo shows, and more kind of intimate shows. And we had such a good time headlining last year, you know, first band tour in the bus in 10 years, that, when BNL reached out, we're like, “You know, let's just go have some fun. We don't have the time to play every song, but let's play the hits. Let's go out for the summer.”
We still haven't really engaged with the fans since the pandemic. Last year, we had to stay in the bubble because, if I got sick, the whole thing goes upside down.
I think, to just go out and have fun, and have a great summer outdoor concert, and people will hear the songs they heard 20 years ago. I just enjoy, frankly, not having the pressure of headlining. We're looking forward to that. And I think this bill is something that there's something for everybody there. We always do a song for our troops. I'll be doing the Ukraine song, then, of course, “Superman,” “100 Years,” “The Riddle,” “Chances.” So, it should be a lot of fun. We're all looking forward to it.
Q: Of course, you're going to be playing the hits, like you said. But, going out last year the way you did, I'm sure you reconnected with some of your catalog. Any chance you sneak in a deep cut, or any particular songs you recalled fondly last summer that you're enjoying playing again?
John Ondrasik: We'll try to put in at least one or two. As I said, I always do a song that recognizes our troops, and we're playing “Two Lights” and “Freedom Never Cries.”
As I mentioned, we'll be playing the new Ukraine song, which is also pretty poignant and timely. A song that probably most people don't know.
The thing that's really cool about playing with different permutations of Five For Fighting – the rock band, the string quartet, the solo shows – is each kind of permutation lends itself to a certain piece of my catalog. The quartet shows, with the strings, lends itself to those big orchestrations that maybe don't transfer as well to the rock band, and vice versa.
We like to mix it up. And we're actually doing some headline shows within this tour, as well. So, we'll be experimenting. And I'm always one of those guys that, if somebody screams for something – if the guys know it – we’ll play it. We just try to have fun and don't take it too seriously.
Q: Your philanthropic endeavors are pretty well-noted. You've been very generous with your time and resources over the years. You give back to our troops, you were involved with the concert after 9/11. There's a number of charities I know you're involved with. Of course, what you've done for Ukraine.
Is that something that has always been important to you, or did that come a little bit further into your career?
John Ondrasik: You know, with the military, I have no military in my family. I’m certainly not in the military, but I've always been appreciative and recognize our freedoms, and freedom of expression as a songwriter. It's our lifeblood.
After the first Iraq war, I started getting kind of emails from our troops in combat, and saying, “You know, I listen to your song before I go on mission,” or “I listen to a song to escape, or to calm down,” and I saw how important music was to their mental wellness.
And, of course, when “Superman” became what it did, so many causes (adopted it). Autistic children really embraced “Superman,” and they could sing a song to you that they could never speak to you.
And so, I saw these little miracles of music and, of course, the true blessing of having popular songs is you can use them to try to make the world a little better. Raise some money, raise some awareness. Going out with the USO, and now working with my pal, Gary Sinise, who's like our Bob Hope. Auggie’s Quest ALS.
You know, it's easy to do. I show up, I play a song. These people face amazing challenges, and I've met heroic people. The Save Our Allies people that rescued 12,000 Afghans in nine days. We live in this cynical, divided world, but you meet these incredible people doing heroic things, and it just inspires you and gives you hope.
I've gotten a lot more back than I've given. And, certainly, we'll try to continue to do that. But no, I never expected with the Afghanistan song and the Ukraine song (to get this attention).
I'm not a guy who stands on a soapbox, “I'm going to write my song of the week and lecture everybody.” But I do think it's important that songwriters write about the world. We saw with Live Aid, we saw with “Sun City,” we saw with “The Concert for New York” – historic issues, musicians rally. I haven't seen that with Ukraine. And it's, frankly, concerning to me. But we'll try to do our part and join those who are also doing theirs.
John Ondrasik on the piano. (Photo provided by 37-Media)
Q: You've got a crazy high number of song placements. I think it's like 350 in TV shows, movies and commercials. Is there a favorite?
John Ondrasik: (Laughs) Well, I'd have to say “Chances” in “The Blind Side” is probably my favorite.
I've had some amazing uses. “All For One” in “Hawaii Five-0,” the new one, was great. I can talk about a lot of them: You know, singing a Jimmy Webb song, “All I Know,” in “Chicken Little,” just singing that song was an honor.
But you know, “Chances” – that movie was not supposed to do anything. They called me and said, “It's a very small budget.” Actually, “Chances” was actually tamped to another big blockbuster, one of the July 4 blockbusters, which I actually pulled it from the blockbuster and put it in “The Blindside” because I really felt it fit that script. And lot of people were very angry with me – especially my record company. But I thought that the song kind of fit that movie.
And to see it kind of do well – and still, you know, 20 years later, every year on Channel 13, you'll see “The Blindside.” People react to it, and I did some stuff with the NFL around it.
It was not just the song, but kind of the story of the song in the movie, and how it impacted and still resonates. It kind of just reminds me of “trust your gut,” because those opportunities don’t come very often. And many times, it goes off the edges if the movie never saw the light of day. But it's the biggest sports movie in history. So, to be part of that is pretty cool.
The Barenaked Ladies “Last Summer on Earth Tour 2023” visits the Artpark Amphitheater on Tuesday, July 11. Gates are set for 5 p.m., with the show expected to start at 6 p.m. Special guests include Five For Fighting and Del Amitri. Click HERE for tickets or more information.