Before most Caps home games, fans at Verizon Center are treated to a stirring, up-tempo rendition of the national anthem by Sergeant Major Bob McDonald. McDonald’s bass-baritone is popular; he has performed at the Super Bowl, the Winter Classic, Major League Baseball games, and, of course, RMNB Party 7: PARTYZORD. As an active-duty member of the Army, McDonald has entertained presidents, visiting heads of state, and supreme court justices.
This week, McDonald will perform twice at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, sharing highlights from his illustrious career and singing Broadway tunes and songs he’s sung for US presidents. Wednesday night’s performance is sold out, but Friday’s show still has tickets remaining. You can purchase tickets here.
On Sunday night, while I grilled a pizza and Bob grilled a steak, we discussed his upcoming concerts and what it’s like to perform at some of the biggest sports events in the world.
Hey, Bob. How has your summer been going? Are you missing hockey as badly as I am right now?
Bob McDonald: My summer has been so busy that I am hoping it will be October soon. Last season’s playoff exit was particularly tough to handle. With that said, I love baseball and am really enjoying the Nats’ and Orioles’ excellent seasons so far.
In regards to the Capitals, I feel the same way. The last two years they’ve seemed so tantalizingly close to getting over the hump. It’s excruciating when they lose by such a tiny margin. That makes me wonder: what is a Bob McDonald summer like? What is a normal week or normal month like for you?
Bob McDonald: As many fans know, thanks to the Capitals announcing it before one of the playoff games against Philadelphia, I recently got promoted to Sergeant Major. This has upped my Army workload quite a bit and I am still adjusting to it. That said, I have had some wonderful performing opportunities this summer with the US Army Chorus, highlighted by a National Anthem for a Nationalization Ceremony at Monticello on the 4th of July. Folks from 70 different countries became US citizens. It was very powerful to see the tears in their eyes as we sang the Anthem.
I’ve also stayed in good anthem-singing shape by singing for the Nationals several times this spring and summer. Later in the season, I will also be singing the anthem before an Orioles game too.
I also hear you’re performing at the Signature Theatre. Can you tell me more about that?
Bob McDonald: I’m doing two performances. I’m taking the stage both on Wednesday at 8 PM and on Friday at 9 PM. Wednesday’s show I believe is already sold out.
The concerts are a part of the awesome Signature Theatre’s Sizzlin’ Summer Cabaret series, and I am performing solo with my pianist, John Touchton. The show’s entitled “Red, White and Bob.” It is a chance to me to sing some songs that I have sung for DC VIPs, whether at the White House or Supreme Court and tell some stories about those experiences.
Can I get a preview of one of those stories maybe?
Bob McDonald: So I tell a funny story about the late Justice Antonin Scalia. I sang for him at the Supreme Court a few years back. As soon as the performance was over, he came bursting into my dressing room, asking why I hadn’t sung the remaining verses of this fairly obscure song (“The Road to Mandalay”). He promptly started to sing the missing verses, in a pretty solid baritone voice I must say. I tell this and others seem to really like it.
What’s it like doing the national anthem in front of huge crowds? Can you somehow describe that experience for me?
Bob McDonald: To be honest, it is really no different than singing it in front of a small crowd. The song is hard to sing and requires preparation and focus no matter the venue or event. With that said, there is no greater feeling than finishing the Anthem at Verizon Center in from of a sold out Caps crowd – the best fans in hockey.
Can you hear your voice bouncing off Verizon Center when you’re singing? What is the thing to master as an anthem singer in a venue like that?
Bob McDonald: There is a bit of an echo at Verizon Center, but nothing like Nationals Park or FedEx Field. The secret to a good Anthem is keeping up the tempo, keeping it simple, and making it about the song, not you. When I first started singing the anthem for the Caps I was not in the Army. (I was a poor college grad with no money who wanted to see my Caps.) Obviously, being an active duty soldier musician for over 20 years has greatly influenced how I approach and value singing the Anthem.
Where did your signature fist pump come from originally?
Bob McDonald: It was totally organic and something I just started doing years ago. Honestly I didn’t even realize I was doing it until people started mentioning it. When Ted told me he liked it, it was forever!
What has your favorite interaction been with a player?
Bob McDonald: Gosh, so many neat ones. One of the first ones was during the Stanley Cup final run in ’98. I was fortunate to have sung every game. I remember Olie Kolzig passing me in the hallway and saying “Hi, Bob.” I was like, he knows my name? So then I started saying hello to him and chatting when he was not in pre-game focus mode. It was fun to see him playing D at the Alumni game a couple of weeks back. A great guy. Recently I was very sad about Wardo and Chimmer leaving. Both were great guys that were very kind to me and went out of their way to let me know they appreciated my anthem.
When Caleb Green and I do the anthem in uniform, we always get nods from our fellow Americans John Carlson and TJ Oshie. This last playoff run we even got a pre-anthem salute from general, er, Coach Trotz! Every game I might add. Love the coach.
Speaking of Caleb: what is the vibe like when you guys sing together? It seems so natural like you’re long lost brothers.
Bob McDonald: Totally. I love every second I get to sing with him. Because of our Caps experience singing the anthem as a duet, we’ve been asked to do it for Wizards, Nationals, Orioles, NCAA tournament, the list goes on and on!
How did you guys first end up singing together? Whose idea was it?
Bob McDonald: It was mine actually. I had done it with another vocalist for an Army function and once Caleb became part of the Caps anthem team, I thought it made sense to give it a shot. The response has been overwhelming so hopefully we will be doing it for years to come.
Bob McDonald: Actually the Brouwer Rangers were great. It was their fee that was the problem. They nearly put Arrowine out of business!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your role in the Winter Classic. What was that like? Do you have any stories from that day or the lead up to it?
Bob McDonald: Oh, that was a career highlight for sure. The Caps/NHL actually asked for Caleb and I to do our duet version, but given the grand scale of the event, it seemed it would be better to utilize the entire US Army Chorus. Ending the anthem in perfect timing with the flyover was the coolest. Then the game… it was Hollywood stuff.
You may remember us backing up Lee Greenwood at the second intermission. As we were leaving to head back to our holding room, Lee asked for a picture with us, which was funny because I thought we should be asking for his pic. Anyways, we took the photo and our conductor asked him if he wouldn’t mind singing an a cappella arrangement of “God Bless the USA” that we do. Being the generous, nice guy that he is, he said yes and we proceeded to sing it. Thankfully it was recorded and it has had thousands and thousands of hits. It was a blast.
Finally, Bob, can you tell me some good music I should listen to because I have a feeling if you saw my iTunes music library, you might open-hand slap me.
[Laughs] I don’t know about that. I am a child of the 80s but grew up with a professional opera singing father so my music tastes run from from the Beatles to Beethoven, Prince to Puccini, and pretty much everything in between. I can find good in virtually all music. I also play the violin (studied in college) and love going to the National Symphony Orchestra to get my violin geek on. As a matter of fact, my college roommate from Oberlin College is Daniel Foster, principal Violist in the NSO (a huge Caps fan). I give him Caps tickets and he gives me symphony tickets… a great trade! Of bands today, I love a guy named Bob Schneider out of Austin. He tours all the time and comes to DC twice a year… he is a brilliant songwriter and musician.
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