I hate cover bands. Or more accurately, I hate the demand for cover bands, the unimaginative audience that is only too happy to hear a ubiquitous song covered by some anonymous bar band, a song that they just heard on the radio while parking the car outside the club. Then there are Tribute Bands whose whole shtick is recreate bands that usually aren’t that great to begin with ( AC/DC, Def Leppard) or to pander to aging fans (Beatles, Ramones ). These are musicians with failed careers who justify their 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 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 is in completely making the songs their own and not slavish recreation. And second, from right here in the Dirt City it’s the fabulous Five Star Motelles, harmonizing on scads of 60s Girl Group chart-toppers. I’ve been wanting to profile the 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.
It’s said that you never really outgrow the music you loved in your formative years. 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 , both penned in 1963 by Phil Spector and Brill Building trailblazers Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich. Money (That’s What I Want) co-written in 1960 by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy for singer Barrett Strong. “Unchained Melody” was originally recorded in 1955 but became a hit ten years later when Spector produced the definitive Righteous Brothers version. Eighteen year old Leslie Gore’s You Don’t Own Me from 1964. Never gals to be in rut, the Motelles also offer a few fine originals, a Depeche Mode hit and a stellar version of The Passenger that has just as much in common with Siouxsie’s cover as Iggy Pop’s original. A cover of a cover? The mind boggles.
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 ten years’ 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 vocals only on the Black and Puerto Rican street corners of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens), check out the 1950s’ Penguins, Five Satins or Del Vikings.
Producers like Spector, Shadow Morton and Leiber & Stoller embellished their hits with symphonic layers of voices, instrumentation and sound effects. This meant that onstage the Ronettes or Shangri-La’s or the Dixie Cups never had a live band but sang along to an instrumental track. The Motelles replace 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 ten or fifteen 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. They’re darn good pop songs that stand the test of time, played by a multitalented and fun band.
The five stars of the Five Stars are the lovely and talented von Bonbon sisters who all share vocals. On electric guitar , the coquettish Coco von Bonbon (Laura Marrich: The Gracchi, Up The Holler ) who, with her fancy fingernails, shreds the strings and possibly your face if you misbehave. The multifarious Muffin von Bonbon (Mauro Woody: Lady Uranium and Glass Menageries ) handily works both acoustic and electric guitars. Frolicsome Frau von Bonbon (Gio Anderson: Hit By A Bus) keeps a frisky back beat . The giocoso Gigi von Bonbon (Marisa De Marco; Ya Ya Boom, Bigawatt) thumps the bottom end on bass and her deep vocals. And the nimble Nastia von Bonbon (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 Von Bonbon is at the mic. To add to the fun, the ladies vary their not-inconsiderable wardrobe and wiggage from gig to gig. One show, the theme could be juvenile delinquents strutting down these 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 and that means this coming Tuesday at Low Spirits. Please plan on stopping at The 5 Star Motelles. No need to call ahead for reservations. There will be metaphorical fluffy clean linen and a tasty mint on your pillow.
Headlining is spaghetti-western psychedelia of 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 maybe a hint of riot grrrl.”
this originally appeared in the Weekly Alibi in a slightly different form