John Ondrasik, the man behind Five for Fighting, hit it big in the early 2000s courtesy of his breakthrough song “Superman,” which became an anthem of sorts after 9/11.
More than two decades later, at the outset of Russia invading the Ukraine, Ondrasik felt inspired early on to write a song for a man he saw as a Superman of sorts: Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky. Dubbed “Can One Man Save the World,” the song led him to travel to Ukraine to record the song with the Ukraine Orchestra just weeks after the war began.
“I was doing work with NGOs during the Afghanistan withdrawal,” said Ondrasik, who is opening for Barenaked Ladies June 30 at Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain with a tight 10-song set. “Many of them moved to the Ukraine when the war began. The Ukrainian ministry wanted me to come.”
So he flew to Krakow, Poland, in May, drove three hours to the Ukraine border and then took a train to Kiev via military escort “They took good care of me,” he said.
What struck Ondrasik was how old the trains and military equipment were, some going back to World War II. “It’s kind of a poor country,” he said. “They have a lot of infrastructure that is 70-80 years old. When we were filming the bombed out airports and seeing the tanks, it was really like a time warp. There were air raids at night. You had to go in a bunker. I got a sense of their reality. It was incredibly illuminating, inspiring and angering.”
In concert, he said, he will play the audio from the orchestra “while we were sitting on those bombed out tanks and we show the video. It was an experience I wish I had never had to do. I got a really personal up close of war and the cost of war. Also, this incredible David vs. Goliath feel.”
While in the Ukraine, he purchased a guitar and played some of his songs on the street. “I hope when the war ends I can go back and play my songs with the orchestra in a much happier setting,” he said. “I saw with the Concert for New York and how those efforts can make a difference.”
Ondrasik was referencing the concert held at Madison Square Garden after 9/11 that featured him performing “Superman” amid much bigger names like Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z.
The Ukraine song, he said, played into a moment he will never forget last summer while playing The Fred in Peachtree City.
“It was by far the best show of the whole tour,” Ondrasik said. “It was really emotional. It was a stormy summer night. Lightning was coming in. I thought they’d call it off. So I played the Ukraine song early on just in case. It was amazing. The wind was kicking up. We hit the climax of the song when this gust of wind came and blew all the papers we had on stage up in the air. The audience was on pins and needles when we hit the crescendo. Then we got a call from production: everybody run for the hills! That was insane. It was a religious experience.”
Two decades removed from his breakthrough, he said he is happy to tour with other acts from that era like Barenaked Ladies and Del Amitri. And he is fine to be part of the more modern “soft rock” genre that includes acts like the Fray, Verve Pipe and Howie Day. He even participated in the Paramount+ docuseries about soft rock called “Sometimes When We Touch.”
The softer side of rock, he said, is part of who he is.
“I was playing ‘Your Song’ and ‘Just the Way You Are,’” he said. “That’s what I grew up with. I was playing ‘Open Arms’ by Journey. That’s a song that got girls to talk to me at parties.”
Ondrasik said this is his first time touring with Barenaked Ladies and he is super excited to watch them live. “We talked about touring a few times before,” he said. “We have the same agent. I’ve always been a fan of theirs. And the stars aligned. And I have two Canadian musicians that have been with me for decades.”
Barenaked Ladies with Five for Fighting and Del Amitri
7 p.m. Friday, June 30. $31.50-$81.50. Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park, 4469 Stella Drive NW, Atlanta, livenation.com.
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.