Pop Combo Defies Cover Band Stereotypes
Checking in with the 5 Star Motelles
Minie Gonzalez, Process of Illumination
I hate cover bands. Or, more accurately, I hate the raison d'être and demand for cover bands, an unimaginative audience that is only too happy to hear a ubiquitous song covered by some anonymous bar band—a tune they just heard on the radio while parking the car outside the club. Then there are “tribute bands,” whose whole schtick is recreating bands that usually aren’t that great to begin with (ex. AC/DC, Def Leppard) or pandering to aging fans (ex. The Beatles, The Ramones). These bands are populated by musicians with failed careers who justify their continued existence by mistaking simpleton fans’ misplaced worship for appreciation of their own miserable “talent.” Did you know that there’s even a Guided By Voices tribute band? For God’s sake, let Robert Pollard drink himself to death in peace.
Of course—like any opinionated bastard—I make exceptions to this rule of thumb based on whim and my own skewed code of ethics. There are two cover bands I adore. First, The Detroit Cobras, who play trashy and many-times-improved—sacrilege!—covers of obscure ’60s R&B. Their success lies in completely making these songs their own rather than slavish recreation. And second, from right here in the Dirt City, it’s the fabulous 5 Star Motelles, harmonizing on scads of ’60s girl group chart-toppers. I’ve wanted to profile this band in these pages since their 2009 inception, but it was always shot down as a conflict of interest since half of the group were then Alibi personnel. That’s no longer the case, so I am now finally free to gush with impunity.
At most Motelles shows, it’s a safe bet I’m the only one in the room who was alive when their repertoire was originally on the charts and all over the radio.
It’s said that you never really outgrow the music you loved in your formative years. At most Motelles shows, it’s a safe bet I’m the only one in the room who was alive when their repertoire was originally on the charts and all over the radio. The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” and “Da Doo Ron Ron,” were both penned in 1963 by Phil Spector and Brill Building trailblazers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. In 1960, “Money (That’s What I Want)” was co-written for singer Barrett Strong by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy and secretary-turned-prolific songwriter Janie Bradford, who also cowrote “Lonely Teardrops.” “Unchained Melody” was originally recorded in 1955, but it only became a hit a decade later when Spector produced the definitive Righteous Brothers version. A then-18-years-old Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” hails from 1964. Never gals to get stuck in a rut, the Motelles also offer a few fine originals, a Depeche Mode hit and a stellar version of “The Passenger” that has as much in common with Siouxsie’s cover as Iggy Pop’s original. A cover of a cover? The mind boggles.
It’s a testament to the Brill writers that their songs still shine without the 10 to 15 studio musicians of the original sessions. It’s also a testament to the Motelles that they can pull off these sometimes-weary chestnuts without a hint of irony.
Please don’t call any of the old girl group stuff doo-wop because it isn’t. Culturally every decade’s pop sensibilities take a few years to completely slough off the previous decade's worth. The girl group was no exception, what with a few shang-a-lang’s and shoop-shoop’s thrown into the mix, but for authentic doo-wop—which originated as a purely vocal art form on the black and Puerto Rican street corners of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens—check out the 1950s-era Penguins, Five Satins or Del-Vikings.
Producers like Spector, Shadow Morton and Leiber and Stoller embellished their hits with the so-called “wall of sound,” symphonic layers of voices, instrumentation and sound effects. This meant that onstage The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las or The Dixie Cups never had a live band and instead sang along to an instrumental track. The Motelles recreate those luxuriant sonic layers with a five-piece pop combo. In their capable hands (and voices), the heart and foundation—the lyrics and melody—of the originals are front and center. It’s a testament to the Brill writers that their songs still shine without the 10 to 15 studio musicians of the original sessions. It’s also a testament to the Motelles that they can pull off these sometimes-weary chestnuts without a hint of irony. These are darn good pop songs that stand the test of time, as played by a multitalented, fun band.
The five stars of the 5 Stars are the lovely and talented vonBonBon sisters, who all share vocal duties. On electric guitar is coquettish Coco vonBonBon (Laura Marrich, The Gracchi and Up The Holler) who—with fancy fingernails—shreds the strings and possibly your face if you misbehave. Multifarious Muffin vonBonBon (Mauro Woody, Lady Uranium and The Glass Menageries) handily works both acoustic and electric guitars. Frolicsome Frau vonBonBon (Gio Anderson, Hit By A Bus) keeps a frisky back beat. Giocoso Gigi vonBonBon (Marisa Demarco of Ya Ya Boom, Bigawatt, Death Convention Singers) thumps the bottom end on bass and with her deep vocals. And nimble Nastia vonBonBon (black belt-babe Amy Dalness) tickles the keys and your fancy. They’re a vox powerhouse—from robust to raucous, from sweet to (p)operatic—depending on which vonBonBon is at the mic. To add to the fun, the ladies vary their significant wardrobe and wiggage from gig to gig. One show the theme could be juvenile delinquents strutting down mean streets with razor blades in their hair, another it might be sweet-sixteen party girls at Carrie-stage meltdown.
Due to maternity, crusading journalism, commitments to other bands and stunt-womaning, they rarely gig these days, so you best see the show when you have a chance. That opportunity knocks this coming Tuesday, Oct. 29, at Low Spirits (2823 Second Street NW) at 9pm, so make plans to take a vacation with the 5 Star Motelles. There's no need to call ahead for reservations, and metaphorical fluffy clean linens and a tasty mint on your pillow await you.
Headlining is spaghetti-western psychedelia group Spindrift. Also on deck are The Klondykes, a new local act self-described as “all-girl psych surf-rock dance freak-out”—to which I’d add “with just a hint of riot grrrl.”