The undisputed king of D.C. cover bands draws on an all-’90s repertoire. At a recent concert at the Clarendon Ballroom, guys in button-down shirts and Birkenstocks pumped their fists to the chorus of “Mr. Jones.” The skronky guitar riff intro of “Just a Girl” elicited screams. A bachelorette posse ditched their heels. A gentle mosh pit erupted during “Tubthumping,” and the crowd busted out (somewhat off-kilter) dance moves while sing-shouting “Wannabe” and “No Scrubs.”
Its sold-out concerts are equal parts raucous wedding reception, the last night of a holiday weekend in Dewey Beach and a dance party to a WASH-FM playlist.
Its name? White Ford Bronco — after the infamous car O.J. Simpson rode in during his car chase with Los Angeles police.
The all-inclusive party vibe has helped sustain the band for 10 years and more than 600 gigs, placing White Ford Bronco outside the usual “cover band” circuit into high-profile venues that otherwise draw stark lines between artists who play original music (welcome) and those who play other people’s tunes (generally not).
In recent years, White Ford Bronco has sold out some of D.C.’s hottest venues, including the 9:30 Club, Rock and Roll Hotel and Lincoln Theater. Seth Hurwitz, the owner of the 9:30 Club, has said that he won’t book acts that aren’t cool enough for his club. Since 2012, the landmark venue has welcomed White Ford Bronco multiple times.
Steve Lambert, who books bands for DC9 and Rock and Roll Hotel, and has White Ford Bronco at the Hotel several times a year, is also a fan. “They are the sole cover band that I book, for the most part,” he says. “They just want to have a good time and their fans to have fun, and we want the same thing.”
The current iteration of White Ford Bronco came together in 2009 when guitarist/singer Diego Valencia and then-drummer Matt Golden were day-drinking at Clyde’s in Georgetown, and told their bartender, Gretchen Gustafson, that they were in a ’90s cover band. Gustafson mentioned that she was a singer who studied music in college, and that if they ever needed someone, she’d be game. A month later, after jamming to Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” she was in.
Why ’90s? There’s a simple answer: Costumed ’80s cover bands were big draws at the time, and playing ’90s hits was a way to set the band apart, while appealing to a slightly younger crowd.
White Ford Bronco paid its dues in the basement of the Irish Times and plenty of now-closed bars, including the Saloun, Acre 121 and Bobby Lew’s, before bigger venues started taking notice. They’ve stayed consistent over the years: Its other members are lead guitarist Ken Sigmund, bassist Sean McCauley and drummer Max Shapiro, the only non-original member, who replaced Golden four years ago.
A key element of White Ford Bronco’s appeal was — and remains — its approachability. “There was an untapped market for a party,” Valencia says. “We were that ball of energy, and everybody would come and be swinging from the rafters and singing along to the songs.”
There’s a clear bond between band and fans: Gustafson sends shout-outs to birthday girls and dedicates “Lovefool” to bachelorette parties. She and Valencia pose for selfies with front-row fans without missing a beat. Concertgoers have been known to corner them at the bar with requests between sets. “Rarely do we ever stick to a set list,” Valencia says. “If someone wants to hear a song, we can do it and make that person’s night.”
That said, there are certain things you can always expect at White Ford Bronco shows, like it or not, including Third Eye Blind. “We’ve probably played ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ 594 times, and in our minds, it’s like, ‘Here we go again.’ ” Gustafson says. “But then you start, you see everybody’s face [get excited] and you get into it.”
Despite songs they can’t get rid of, no two White Ford Bronco shows are exactly the same. Gustafson estimates there are “150 to 180 songs, give or take,” to choose from, and they’re constantly learning new ones for weddings and events — Jennifer Lopez’s “Waiting for Tonight” is a recent request that’s been added to the playlist. But there are other factors, too: Valencia says that “certain songs that were recognizable five to six years ago are not as recognizable” now, such as Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” or the Refreshments’ “Bandidos.”
The set list used to have more guitar-driven songs, Gustafson explains. “Now it’s a bit more poppy, because people who are 22, 23, they remember *NSync and the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls” and are more familiar with boy bands or girl groups than one-hit alt-rock wonders. That can be a challenge for a band that doesn’t use keyboards or samples, says guitarist Sigmund: They had to create a new arrangement for “Vogue,” because “it’s a song that doesn’t use any guitars.”
Your view of White Ford Bronco is going to depend on your age. If you’re in your mid-30s or later, it might come as a shock to discover that you still remember the chorus to “Flagpole Sitta,” and you’re going to flash back to singing along to “ . . . Baby One More Time” on the way to school.
But if you’re too young to remember the ’90s, and it seems like a good portion of the crowd doesn’t, it’s faux nostalgia for a time when Britney Spears wasn’t a punchline. That fraction is less likely to be interested in the deeper cuts from Deep Blue Something or Sixpence None the Richer. (At one point during the Clarendon Ballroom show, Gustafson scolded members of the audience for trying to Shazam a song, which perfectly sums up the age divide.)
Despite all their success, the band members say, they’ve never been tempted to swap cover songs for original material. The secret to their popularity, Valencia says, is that they always give the audience what it wants. “We’ve stuck to our guns,” he says. “We’ve gotten good at it, and people like it.”