With the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaching next week, Tri-Valley residents are also set to have the opportunity to reflect on some of the music that resonated throughout the world in the aftermath in 2001 -- specifically that of John Ondrasik, better known by his stage name Five for Fighting.
Ondrasik is scheduled to stop in Livermore as part of an ongoing tour that sees his music showcased by his distinctive vocals and piano, with the addition of a string quartet, for a performance at the Bankhead Theater next Friday (Sept. 15).
"There's nothing like performing for an audience, and I think for any of us the pandemic was a wake up call in how fortunate we are to do this kind of community experience," Ondrasik told the Weekly.
"I've toured a lot back in the early 2000s," he added. "I think after the pandemic, all of a sudden I wanted to get back on the bus."
Five for Fighting's breakout hit was the 2001 single "Superman (It's Not Easy)" from the album "America Town" -- an omnipresent part of the collective American soundtrack of the early wake of 9/11 that made it to the top of the Billboard charts that year -- which was followed by several high-performing singles, including his second No. 1 hit "100 Years" in 2003.
His current tour features Ondrasik's hits -- in addition to new material including the 2022 "Can One Man Save the World," better known as the "Ukraine Song" for its resonance in the ongoing war in that country -- in a warmer and more intimate atmosphere than his earlier stadium shows, with the addition of the string quartet. The adjustment is nothing new for Ondrasik, whose roots are in classical music.
"My mom was a piano teacher, so she started me very young. And she was very wise when I was 13 and didn't want to practice anymore and she let me quit," Ondrasik said.
Later in his teens, Ondrasik said that he began gravitating toward well-known rock singers, including Journey vocalist Steve Perry, whose voice teacher he was able to find and consult.
"I realized that a lot of these great singers trained classically," Ondrasik said.
While Ondrasik had his eyes on the pop charts early on, he went on to train in opera for five years, as well as explore his earlier attraction to rock vocals
"I got out of college and I joined a band with all of Pat Benatar's ex-musicians," Ondrasik said. "We were on the verge of getting a record deal, but then this little band called Nirvana came out."
While the rise and early dominance of grunge music that was catalyzed by Nirvana's first album in 1991 presented an obstacle for Ondrasik's band and other musicians seeking to blend rock and pop influences, the tides turned in his favor a decade later.
"It's surreal -- I'm a 15-year overnight success," Ondrasik said. "I struggled so long and I was relatively old. I was in my late-20s when I started having hit songs, which is really old for a performer, because usually by then reality strikes."
When "Superman" was first released, Ondrasik was already motivated by its early resonance with audiences on the heels of his earlier single "Easy Tonight," which he described as "just enough of a hit to give us another song."
"When I played it I saw people kind of be moved by it," Ondrasik said. "I got a really strange call from the record company, and they said 'Superman' was No. 1 in the Philippines."
"We saw that there was something there, and then the song really started to take off, and then 9/11 happened," Ondrasik said.
The rest is history, with this year marking the 22nd anniversary of "Superman" becoming an indelible part of the soundtrack of the post-9/11 era and launching Five for Fighting into international fame.
That fame and his place in the history of pop music was also solidified with the subsequent hit "100 Years" in 2003, followed by a new generation of listeners who have come to appreciate Ondrasik's work amidst the rise of social media.
"I've just been incredibly blessed with '100 Years' becoming one of those songs," Ondrasik said. "I still pinch myself when I hear it on the radio."
Changes in the media landscape in the rise of the digital age have also impacted how Ondrasik and other artists measure success.
"It's really cool to see younger kids finding the music and having it impact this new generation," Ondrasik said. "The last couple of songs -- they're not songs that get millions of spins on the radio, but they get millions of views and impacts."
Among these is the "Ukraine Song", which Ondrasik wrote with the Ukrainian people in mind amidst the ongoing attacks from Russian forces, and which saw him welcomed to the war-torn country to film the accompanying music video, despite initial plans to film in neighboring Poland as the early months of the conflict escalated.
"Every member of that orchestra had a family member killed or lost or on the frontlines," Ondrasik said. "Every emotion you could feel, you felt -- you're horrified and angry about what's going on, but you're also incredibly inspired by these people."
"I think it's our job as musicians to do things like that, and to support freedom and fighting for freedom," he added.
Ondrasik said that seeking to bring his experience filming the video to life for audiences was a highlight of the setlist on the tour heading to Livermore next week.
"I think people, when they see the show, they can get a sense very quickly of what we've heard and what we saw while we were there," Ondrasik said. "So that's always a very poignant moment during our set."
He added that his travels had brought him to the Tri-Valley in the past.
"We've played Livermore before," Ondrasik said. "We had a great time."
Ondrasik is set to return for the upcoming "Five for Fighting with String Quartet" performance at the Bankhead Theater at 2400 First St. in Livermore on Sept. 15 starting at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at livermorearts.org.