Casinotes: Full-band version of Five For Fighting gets ‘back on the bus’ for the first time in a decade; Three AC casinos show off new and rehabbed hotel rooms

Five For Fighting

How long has it been since the last time Five For Fighting—the nom de tune of singer-songwriter John Ondrasik—hit the road in full rock-band mode? Long enough that the last time he did Barack Obama was president, “Breaking Bad” was being hailed as the gold standard of scripted television and the idea of a global pandemic was the stuff of fiction and scientific what-ifs.

It’s not that the 57-year-old pop-rocker, who has had such hits as “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” “100 Years” and “The Riddle,” left the music business. Instead, he detoured into alternative formats, touring as a solo act and performing with symphony orchestras and, more regularly, a string quartet. But his current road trip, which on July 30 brings him to Hard Rock Hotel Casino Atlantic City, is a throwback affair.

“We haven’t put the band back on the bus for almost a decade. And I think, if there was any silver lining to this pandemic, it kind of refocused us on priorities and what matters,” said Ondrasik during a recent phone call. 

“And I just had this calling to go back to the future and get back with the boys and get out there and do it like we used to do it, and play songs that hadn’t been played in a long time.”

According to the Los Angeles native whose songs have been featured in some 250 films and TV shows, touring with a group is a significantly different experience–on and off the stage–from the gigs he does with just a string quartet backing him.

“Certainly it’s more logistically challenging,” he offered. “It’s more expensive, with all the gear you have to carry. And the tone of the performance is different.” 

“The quartet shows are certainly more intimate; you can play certain songs that really fit that vibe. The rock shows are rock shows; they’re more exuberant, more fun. You don’t take 20 minutes and talk about where the song came from. It’s just a different presentation.” 

A different musical blueprint, he continued, means a different set list.

“Most of the quartet songs are songs that have very beautiful string arrangements that some world class composers have written for me. Now, we don’t have an orchestra, or strings, so we tend to not play those songs. We [play] songs like “Policeman’s Xmas Party,” you know, crazy rock, fun songs that we would never play at a quartet show.” 

“So for me, having a drummer behind you, and guitar solos, it kind of makes it all fresh again. We’re gonna open with “Bella’s Birthday Cake,” which is a piano rock song we hadn’t played since our last band gig, 10 years ago. So it really is kind of a rebirth in a way.”

Ondrasik is also happy to have as his opening act The Verve Pipe (“The Freshman”).

“I remember they were so nice to me when I was kind of coming up and having my first success,” he said. “It’s nice to have some friends opening for you and kind of recreating that time, as well as playing the brand new songs.”

As for his more recent material, it’s likely no song currently means more to Ondrasik than “Can One Man Save the World?” his paean to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. So what moved him to write it?

“I think as a songwriter, you just kind of express your emotions,” he reasoned. “After [the controversial troop withdrawal from] Afghanistan, I wrote a song called ‘Blood On My Hands,’ which was about my anger at us abandoning our allies.”

Ondrasik explained “Can One Man” was inspired by Zelensky’s refusal to accept the U.S.’s offer of safe passage out of Ukraine when Russia’s invasion of his country began earlier this year.

“We offered him a plane ticket and he said, ‘No, send [weapons]. I’m gonna stay here with my family, my two children, and very likely be killed in the next few days.’ I think it woke a lot of us up; we hadn’t seen that kind of strength and fortitude in a long time on the world stage. And so that was very inspiring to me.”

Since then, Ondrasik, who has produced a series of videos under the “Meet the Heroes” banner that pay tribute to individuals who have helped American allies escape Taliban rule in Afghanistan, has visited the embattled nation. He shot a video of the Zelensky ode accompanied by the Ukrainian Orchestra. His hope is that it inspires his fellow musicians to create a “Live Aid”-type of campaign.

“We’re trying to put the Ukraine crisis back on the map,” he said, “and also trying to call for a type of global concert that we can put on at the end of summer to really put cultural pressure on Russia. We want to remind [the Russians], hey, you’re isolated in this, you’re the pariah, not just economically and politically, but also culturally.”

Room boom

Atlantic City visitors now have the opportunity to stay in one of almost 2,000 hotel rooms that are either brand new or fully renovated.

Ocean Casino Resort recently opened 463 rooms and suites that were never completed when the gambling den debuted as Revel in 2012. The standard rooms–which are larger than the industry average, square-footage-wise—offer a wide range of amenities including divans, plenty of electrical outlets/USB ports, easily accessible safes and large, modern showers.

And like every other Ocean room, the new units offer water views (ocean/bay).

At Bally’s Atlantic City, 750 Tower rooms have been given a makeover, bringing the 33-year-old hotel into the 21st century. The work restores to the complex the atmosphere of luxury it exuded when it opened in 1989. All rooms have been updated with sleek, modern décor; bathrooms have been retrofitted with updated amenities like illuminated mirrors and brand-new showers.

For those looking to splurge a little, there are 112 corner Deluxe King rooms that expand on the standard billets with window-fronting seating areas and a soaking tub.

Next door at Caesars Atlantic City, the sky-scraping Centurion Tower has likewise received a thorough revamping. Standard rooms offer a number of must-have features including large-screen HD TVs.

The bathrooms are exceptionally roomy (the national industry seems to be heading in the opposite direction) and contain large, glass-enclosed showers with a seat and two shower heads.

The top three floors of the Centurion Tower are still undergoing construction work that will transform them into the super-high-end Nobu hotel-within-a-hotel. A late-2022 opening is planned.

    • Chuck Darrow headshot

      Chuck Darrow has spent more than four decades as a writer and broadcaster specializing in covering the Philadelphia region's arts, entertainment and casinos. He is still afraid he may one day have to work for a living. 

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