On a Roll
"Stick around too much and people won't miss you," Brendan O'Hara muses over drinks on Hollywood Beach, where the 24-year-old singer/songwriter/activist has settled down for close to two years. That's after a case of wanderlust had taken him to cities on both coasts since he left New Jersey in 1998. But talk to him about South Florida and he smiles big.
O'Hara doesn't hide his emotions well, one-on-one or in his music. He's got all the swagger of a ready-made celebrity and the looks to boot long dark hair, scruffy beard and goatee, improbably white teeth, paint-splattered T-shirt and jeans, and a gold-flecked fedora. It would be easy to assume that the name of his backing band, the Humble Ones bassist Billy B. Bowin and drummer Jon Weiner was a toss-off, something that just sounded good after his name. When I suggest to O'Hara that he doesn't act like the "quiet, lovable loser" he suggests he is, he nods. "You're right," he says, motioning to Bowin and Weiner. "They're the humble ones."
Formed in January 2005, the trio has become one of South Florida's most earnest live acts, clocking in three-hour shows of original material and building a wellspring of good karma due to their philanthropic endeavors. "I was always a performer," O'Hara says of his early days spent doing community theater and learning music from his grandfather, a "beatnik" who played ragtime and boogie-woogie piano. "He was the most original thinker I ever met and a great musician. He was the life of the party. If he spent a few minutes with somebody, they instantly felt like a friend, and he definitely knew how to command attention."
Seeking attention of his own, O'Hara joined the City Kids Repertory Company in Jersey, crediting his trouble-making skills with landing meaty rolls in the company's socially minded performances. "They gave me the lead so they could keep an eye on me," he says. In fact, O'Hara blames "high jinks" for his earliest works of public service. After Peter Jennings' anti-drug prime-time TV special the Repertory taped, he stole the rainbow-colored rolling papers from the paraphernalia segment. When his family moved to Seattle, he didn't show up for the plane. "I was born rebellious," O'Hara says, and some of that rebellious streak wormed its way into his music.
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Driven to "capture the moment rather than get all nostalgic about the past," he began writing and noodling with a guitar but found the piano a more reliable vehicle for his reflections. He eventually moved to L.A., where he enjoyed a brief role as Ashton Kutcher's stand-in on That '70s Show but was enticed by frequent visits to Miami. "My friends called me 'Drive-By.' I'd fly in for the summer, make a mess of things, then fly out," he says. When subway-station gigs in New York didn't pay the bills, he relocated to South Florida in 2004 and looked to form a band.
Enter Bowin, an accomplished guitar player and art teacher at the Arts Academy of Hollywood, where O'Hara teaches drama and music. "Moving to Florida allowed me to become a better musician and actually make a living," O'Hara says. In fact, unlike many local artists who bemoan the state of live music in South Florida, O'Hara and his Humble Ones embrace it. "The scene may be more fragmented here than in Seattle or New York, but that's worked for us," offers Weiner, who teamed with O'Hara and Bowin early last year. "There's far less 'pay to play' here. As a result, we got to play a lot more and were able to develop a following. And it's our experience that since there's fewer venues, it's easier to weed out the unpassionate musicians."
For musicians who speak of "rarely practicing" in the classic sense, the trio is tight, finishing one another's sentences and embracing a jam-band, improvisational-style in its performances. The group rarely plays tracks from its first studio album, Perceptive Inception, as they were recorded. "We play the songs the way they feel that night. Sometimes it's reggae; sometimes it's rock," O'Hara says. That off-the-cuff merriment, buoyed by the band's sound a sonic stew of jazz, saloon-style swing, pop, rock, and hip-hop has allowed the trio to get political without alienating folks just looking to get down.
"The album captures the vibe we have when we play live and honors what we do [socially]," Weiner says, including an array of benefit concerts and fundraisers, combating everything from AIDS in Africa to world hunger. "We like to think that the work we do for charity is representative of the fact that we're conscious about what's going on around us," Weiner says. "We're invested in charity work because circumstances compel us to be," adds O'Hara, citing his mother, a nurse practitioner who has worked in Africa for the CDC, as inspiration. "I don't know how you read the paper every day and not get involved."
In between saving the world, O'Hara and his mates are in the process of recording a new EP and planning their next move: going national. "The challenge in the beginning was to make a living," he says. "Luckily, we do that now and are far from starving artists. But we're still hungry." And still humble?
"Ah, man," O'Hara says, "we're always up for a little self-righteous trouble."
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