If you’re a musician and play in New Jersey long enough, you are bound to cross paths with Bruce Springsteen or Jon Bon Jovi at some point. If you are really lucky, you might get the opportunity to play with one of them on stage. And if you are truly blessed, you may get invited to tour with one of them or have another add guest vocals to your own project. But when you are guitarist Matt O’Ree, you get all of the above and more.
O’Ree — who joined Bon Jovi as a guitarist on the Southeast Asian leg of the band’s 2015 tour — has just released his new album, Brotherhood, featuring guest vocals by Springsteen and a song co-written by Bon Jovi keyboardist and Tony Award winner Dave Bryan titled “My Everything is You.” The record also boasts an appearance by Steve Cropper of Booker T & The MGs. O’Ree will perform tracks from the record and holiday favorites Friday night (Dec. 23) at The Wonder Bar in Asbury Park.
Produced by Bruce Buchanan, Brotherhood is aptly named for O’Ree’s connection to his band mates as well as the special guests on his record, including Matt Wade, Dave Archer, Eryn Shewell, Layonne Holmes, Scott Bennert and John Hummel.
“Jon Bon Jovi gave me the opportunity to play on tour with him, and having Bruce and Bon Jovi in the same sentence, including with my record, my career. It’s like, God, I wake up every day just feeling so blessed to know these people and that they thought and felt enough of me as a person and in my ability to want to help me out, to try to put me into the next level of my career,” O’Ree tells Billboard.
O’Ree is known for his scorching blues guitar around the shore, with nods to Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Black Sabbath penetrating the sonic mix. After gaining national exposure as the winner of Guitar Center’s Guitarmageddon contest in 2006, O’Ree received an endorsement from Gibson Guitars and released a live album. Although his career was starting to heat up, O’Ree heeded the advice of his mentor, the late Bernie Brausewetter of B.B. and the Stingers. Brausewetter told O’Ree to support himself as a guitar teacher, as it is a way to earn money while remaining free to play gigs whenever the opportunities arise.
“Bernie told me it gives you the opportunity to be able to create your own schedule to go perform, which is what you ultimately want to do, and at the same time, you’re really able to share your gift and your knowledge to other aspiring musicians, and there’s something really important about continuing to keep passing down the torch of knowledge,” he says.
O’Ree supplemented his music — and muse — by teaching many kids the art of the axe while opening for many big name acts locally and even scoring a mini-tour with The Blues Brother Band. That lead to a friendship with Cropper, who gifted O’Ree with a Flying V Gibson guitar and now appears on Brotherhood.
One day, O’Ree made an important contact when a future pupil named Sam Springsteen sat in on a friend’s lesson.
“Ironically, through most of my students is where so many of my connections have come over the years of just meeting the students’ parents, who either A, was in the music industry, or B, knew somebody,” he says. “When I won the Guitar Center contest, I was standing in the House of Blues in Chicago, where the final round of the competition was, and after I had won, I’m celebrating with my friends who came out in Jersey to be there for the competition, and I listen to my voicemail to find out I have a message from Patti Scialfa saying, ‘Hey, would you come teach our son?’ I was like, ‘Of course I will.'”
Springsteen was happy to hear that a local musician “had won a big contest,” and the two struck up a conversation.
“I remember Bruce being so enthralled with the fact that that happened to someone local. He was so happy to hear that,” he says. “Of course I was still on cloud nine of even being able to be in the contest and making it that far.”
O’Ree taught Sam for some time, and one day at a lesson the younger Springsteen asked if he was working on any new music. O’Ree had just finished recording a version of a song, “Black Boots,” co-written with Jon Leidersdorff, a local musician who had some success in a band called Outcry and now owns Lakehouse Recording Studios in Asbury Park. O’Ree handed a copy of the track to Sam, and when he came back the next week asked if he had any “constructive criticism” to improve the track, which paints a picture of how musicians put on their black boots, so to speak, and put on a show with their on-stage persona. O’Ree was surprised when Sam told him, “my dad really liked it.”
“I said, ‘Wait. You played this for your dad?’ He was like, ‘Yeah. Why wouldn’t I?’ I’m like, ‘I didn’t give you this CD to give it to your dad,'” O’Ree said. “He was like, ‘No, no. I really liked it. I really think my dad should hear it.'”
After the lesson, O’Ree bumped into Springsteen in the driveway, who told him how much he liked the song. It was then that O’Ree summoned “every ounce of courage” to make a simple request: Asking The Boss if he’d interested in playing a solo on the track.
“He kind of stood back, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, man. I’ll do something on your song.’ I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
With Springsteen’s recording and touring commitments, it “took quite some time for him to get to the song,” but the musician had something else in mind other than a solo. In the final version, Springsteen sings the second verse with O’Ree, taking on the lyrics, “this day job is not who I am/it’s so far from my rock ‘n’ roll plans.”
“Bruce said to me, ‘I just want to give something that’s going to add to the song.’ It was just so cool to hear that from Bruce. Bruce is such an artist that he cares abut the art of the song,” he says. “Not so much about the publicity it could get, or the monetary value it could lead to. He cares about the art, and that’s just who Bruce is. He’s a true artist. Hearing his vocals and his guitar solo, it’s so surreal to still put it on in my car and listen to it, like, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe I’m actually playing with Bruce Springsteen.”
O’Ree made another rock ‘n’ roll connection with Bon Jovi’s Bryan, whom he previously met briefly at a wedding. The two got a proper introduction later at a Red Bank gig when one of O’Ree’s students took Bryan and his wife, Lexi, to watch a show at Jamian’s Food and Drink. O’Ree invited Bryan onstage to play, and the two became friends. Bryan later recommended O’Ree as a guitarist to Jon Bon Jovi when the band needed extra muscle on its 2015 tour.
“I had a quick little audition at Jon’s house,” he says. “Jon was so nice when he answered the door. It was just so surreal knocking on his door. Jon answers and he’s like, ‘Hey, come on in.’ It was such an amazing experience. Then a few weeks later getting the call saying, ‘Hey, you still want to go on tour?’ I said, ‘Absolutely. My bags are always packed.’ Off we went.”
O’Ree went from playing a small show at Jamian’s in Red Bank to performing with Bon Jovi for 55,000 people in Jakarta, Indonesia.
“I think the biggest show was Singapore, and that was 70,000. To see that many people and be on the stage, which was where I always hoped I would be,” he says. “Every time I go to a concert, I always look around to get a perspective of the audience and then wonder what it’s like for the guys on stage, and now I finally was able to experience that.”
A tour like that, he says, was educational.
“One of my funny stories was, in this one song, for my guitar solo. I leave my little station, and I come out to the end of the stage. If I had been any further towards the edge of the stage, I would’ve been in the audience. I got my eyes closed, and I’m giving it everything I’ve got. This is my chance to play a solo for 50 something thousand people, and then halfway through my solo, I kind of opened my eyes to realize that 50,000 people were looking in the other direction, which is where Jon was,” he says. “I was like, ‘How does he do that? That’s amazing.’ Again, one of the greatest opportunities of my lifetime, and probably ever will be. It’s just an honor to be a part of that.”
After that tour, Bryan approached O’Ree with some songwriting ideas. O’Ree was in the process of re-recording songs for Brotherhood and deciding which of the 16 songs completed he wanted to keep, so he was hear something new. The result turned out to be “My Everything is You,” the second song on the record.
“David came forth with this really cool riff, and it turned out to be such a great song. It’s neat because it kind of has a little bit of that touch of a Bon Jovi song, but yet it still has that 70s blues rock thing, which is my favorite thing,” he says. “It’s a really nice balance that’s turned out to be a crowd favorite every time we play, because everybody’s usually singing the chorus, which is always a good thing as a songwriter if people are doing that.”
Although O’Ree won’t be joining Bon Jovi on the forthcoming This House is Not For Sale Tour, he has plans of his own.
“If he needs me, I’ll be happy to go again,” he says. “Hopefully I’ll be back on tour supporting Brotherhood, which is our main priority right now — to get back on the road.”
Brotherhood is available through O’Ree’s website.