Rockets RED Glare

Bob McDonald 1You know who Bob McDonald is, even if you don’t recognize his name. At the very least, you know what he sounds like.

For more than 20 years, Bob has been one of the NHL’s top go-to guys to perform the National Anthem before play, and like many of the crew that make up the Capitals family, we’ve been lucky to have him here in DC.

I say “perform”, but “present” might be the better verb. Some singers have become well known nationally for their stamp they leave on the song: witness Jim Cornelison’s enthusiastic kapowza ass-kicking, or Boston’s Rene Rancourt, whose style we’ll just call flamboyant and leave it there…although personally we think Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion did it better.

While Bob’s voice is certainly strong, his anthem is uniquely clean and clear, like a crystal glass allowing us to see the complex wine it holds inside. When McDonald reaches for those notes, it’s like he’s saying the music is what matters, not him.

Now an active duty Master Sergeant in the U.S. Army Chorus, McDonald’s love for the Caps, and sport in general, began in his McLean youth. After graduating from Oberlin in 1992, he was a bit aimless – and definitely broke. He moved back to town, took a job at Tower Records, and looking for a way to go see Caps games for free, auditioned to sing the anthem before games at the old Capital Centre.

Lucky for him, he got the gig.

And lucky for us, Bob and his sometimes singing partner Master Sgt Caleb Green will open up the Capitals regular season this Saturday with their interpretation of the National Anthem for, what he hopes, will be “…a long run into post-season playoffs.” From his lips to Lord Stanley’s ears.

We caught up with Bob recently to hear his thoughts on the Capitals fans, what singing the anthem means for him, and his hopes to one day hear all of Verizon joining in.

First off, you sing all over town. Anything fun coming up?

Glad you asked! You might know that this year is the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth. So I’m going to be working with some of the best jazz musicians to bring him and his unforgettable music back to life. It’s one show only, we’ve done this before, and I guarantee it’s going to be a sell-out, so if anyone’s interested they should get tickets now.

OK, let’s get to the Caps. After two decades, you must you feel like part of the Caps family.

Absolutely! This is my 23rd season doing this, and I’ve developed relationships where fans became friends and friends became family. There’s something unique about hockey I think that pulls people together like family…it’s just special. I sing all over, at FedEx Field, for state functions, the Kennedy Center, but I always think, “Oh, I miss Verizon.” It’s like going home.

What makes for a good performance of the anthem?bob McDonald 3

I’d like to think one of the reasons the fans like me is because I sing the anthem straight. I sing it at a speed which I believe to be appropriate in a key that’s approachable. And I do everything I can to not make it about me.

We know the fans aren’t there to sing the national anthem; they’re there to watch hockey. But at the same time, it’s important and many, many people – especially in this area – understand the deeper meaning of presenting the anthem.I think the short answer is I do it quickly, and I don’t make it about me.

Honestly, I can’t stand those Superbowl anthem performances that are so larded up with vocal acrobatics and fireworks; I just tune it out.

Absolutely. And every time that happens, it helps people like me who go out and sing it the way it was put on the page. Sing it with honor and dignity, and boom, it’s done. It’s not that hard.

Of course, that said, vocally it’s a very difficult song. When I sing O Canada for example, it’s ten times easier to sing than our anthem…

Yeah, those must be two completely different songs to sing…

The first thing with our anthem is it has a two octave range – that’s really quite rangy for a song. Then there’s the language – it’s not modern English, and it doesn’t trip off the tongue. O Canada is just a much simpler, naturally majestic melody. It’s just easier to sing.

I think a lot of people know that the Star Spangled Banner‘s origins began with a British drinking tune and a poem scrawled out by an amateur. Being a member of the military, I hear the Army Band do the national anthem all the time, and that really helps me frame and present it in an honorable way: it’s big and brassy and has a ‘Don’t Mess With Us’ quality. For all its difficulty, there’s a majesty and power there.

And of course, most people aren’t even aware that the song is all questions! “O say can you see…Whose broad stripes and bright stars…” Even the last line which sound so triumphant is really just a question.

Sometimes I actually get a little choked up singing the anthem. Do you have to keep your emotions in check?

Totally, totally. It can be very emotional. I think I did the first anthem after 9-11 at Verizon. It might have been Caps or Wizards, but needless to say that was a tremendous honor, just being back in uniform in front of 18,000 people…and all of us in a complete state.

But there have been a number of times, just personal stuff. For me, the anthem before I joined the army and the anthem after I joined are very different. While my job is not infantry, just being in that military world and knowing people who are serving overseas, that’s made the anthem a totally different experience…especially when I’m singing for veterans. We all know the power of music; those times I get to sing for our veterans, and the emotions that pulls out of them – there’s nothing cooler than that.

Are you ever disappointed U.S. audiences don’t generally sing along?

It would be so cool if we did that here. Part of what’s going on is the ease of singing it. One reason Canadians belt it out is that O Canada is just so much easier to sing.But look at European soccer clubs – those fans are singing all the time. Watch the Premier League – they never stop singing! I would love it.

There was one time I was doing a Bullets game years ago, and my mic went out. Now, I can make some noise, but I can only do so much. But the fans picked it right up and went with me; that was really nice. And yes, there have been times where I kinda wish that would happen at a Caps game, because I know the Caps fans would totally jump in and sing along.

When Wes announces me I think he says something like “please sing along loudly and proudly.” I would love it if the fans joined in. I even sing it in a key that’s easier for the average person – I hover around A-flat.

Of course, Caps fans do sing along at two specific points…is that a distraction?

It’s not a distraction but only because I’ve been doing it for so long and am used to it. You can sense when people come into Verizon or Camden Yards for the first time and they’re not used to that.

I’ve had a lot of fans come up to me and say “I think that’s so rude, I don’t know why we do that.” Compared to some arenas, like New York, they just yell through the entire anthem. I have to say that when you sing at Verizon, it’s as quiet as can be, in the best possible sense. They have respect. So they yell “Red!” and “O!” – that’s fine, that’s a fandom thing.

Caleb and Bob = best

Caleb and Bob = best

You and Caleb harmonize so well. Did that take long?

It just sort of evolved. We sang it just a few years ago for the first time and it’s grown in frequency. We’re both professionals, so it was just working a few things out. Caleb takes the melody, so I try and remember what I’m doing on harmony.

Because I’m in the Army Chorus, I’m used to doing four-part harmony. I have so many anthems in my head. I have a Baritone line for a full-part men’s chorus, I’ve got the duet version with Caleb, I’ve got the times where it’s just me. It’s like “which one is it tonight?” But we love doing it together – and we’re kicking off the Caps season Saturday night.

Don’t get me wrong: you guys are great. But why aren’t there more singers, or different groups, like at other barns?

In a word: logistics. The Army Chorus sang the national anthem for a Caps game several years ago. There’s 24 of us – that’s 24 people you have to maneuver on and off the ice, set up the microphones all around them, and clear it out for the players.

The winter Classic was just the opposite. I think the NHL was holding the anthem for a star – I can’t say for sure – but they eventually chose us, which was a great honor. When I started chatting with the producer, it seemed to make more sense to have the whole Army Chorus do it. They wanted it big – it’s a big stage, after all. I said, why don’t we put me and Caleb in the front, but musically it makes much more sense to have the big group out there. In the end, that’s what happened, and it was a slam-dunk home-run.

I think the Caps are happy with their anthem situation. There’s tons of really talented people in this town who would love to sing, but the Caps really like the fact that we’re their go-to singers.

The PuckBuddys have an idea. As we open up the 2015-16 season – a season that may be one for the books – we’d like to help Bob and Caleb out. This Saturday, put modesty aside for a few minutes and sing the anthem out – loud. Let’s let them hear us.

We know how loud we can rock Red; Saturday night let’s try and rock the Red, White and Blue.

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3 Responses to Rockets RED Glare

  1. IRockTheRed says:

    Bob and Caleb are hands down the two best Anthem singers I have ever heard. The fact that they perform it straight, without vocalizing all over the map, makes it (relatively) easy to sing along with them (assuming you have a two-octave vocal range). I wish Bob and Caleb would sing the Anthem for every Caps game; there are a handful of other singers that do Caps games, but none of them come close to the skill of Bob and Caleb.

  2. sisquoc says:

    I wish we had someone like Bob and Caleb at The Pond and Staples.

  3. Pingback: Bob McDonald, National Anthem Performer |

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