White Ford Bronco was finally playing Britney Spears’ “Oops!…I Did it Again.” And Peter Mills, 32, was right in front of the stage, mouthing the lyrics and spinning like a helicopter, alone. The D.C.-based ’90s cover band was performing at an open mic night at Tortoise & Hare Bar & Grille in Crystal City, but hadn’t promoted the show to its fanbase. The group had recently gotten a new drummer, and the members wanted him to have a practice show without the mob of drunk, sweaty, dancing 20- and early-30-somethings that have become emblematic of their shows throughout the area.
But Mills got lucky. He’s been to so many White Ford Bronco shows over the years (at least 30, by his count) that he’s now friends with the five members of the band and, during a presumably slow Wednesday at work, sent a Facebook message to White Ford Bronco singer and guitarist Diego Valencia to see if he wanted to grab a drink that night. Valencia told him about the secret show, and Mills reverse-commuted from D.C. to catch a typical set of shlocky ’90s songs, like Blink 182’s “All the Small Things,” Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life,” and the Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy.”
“I feel pretentious accepting the title,” says Mills, a D.C. government employee. “But I am the biggest fan.”
Mills may be a contender for that surprisingly coveted title, but he’s definitely got some competition. The band, which formed in 2008, frequently packs locals bars and, in January, sold out the 1,100-person capacity Howard Theatre in Shaw. And on a Saturday in February—three days after the band’s dress rehearsal at Tortoise & Hare—White Ford Bronco performed for the first time at U Street Music Hall, a 500-person venue known for its bookings of hip, cerebral electronic music and indie rock, selling out of $15 tickets a week in advance. That show landed them a headlining gig this summer at the 9:30 Club, the famed venue whose business manager once told Washington City Paper “it’s not really 9:30’s style to book cover bands” in a 2005 article about why local ’80s cover bands, like the Legwarmers, are largely relegated to the suburbs.
But White Ford Bronco has found considerable success in D.C. proper. As the band members consumed as much free booze as they could before taking the stage at U Hall (a preshow ritual of sorts), Valencia joked that my profile of the group should be headlined “Almost Famous”—a story about a band struggling with the tribulations of fame.
His quip wasn’t that off base: The band may be ignored by the local music press, but Gretchen Gustafson, 30, the band’s co-lead singer and only female member, was recently recognized by some George Washington University students when she went to campus for a doctor’s appointment. “Almost Famous” might be apt, then: To White Ford Bronco’s diehards, they’re already golden gods.
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At the U Hall show, Mills spent most of the band’s set walking around, talking to people he knew from the White Ford Bronco concert circuit, and doing the “love push” dance move that he and some other superfans do, pushing his hands toward the stage to “show some love” to the band. At one point, he even pulled out his phone to video-chat with a friend who frequents the band’s concerts but couldn’t make it that night because he’d moved to California.
Gustafson gave shout-outs to fans celebrating their birthdays, including one woman whose husband had brought a group of friends to mark her 30th at the concert. Most the people I spoke to were unashamed to admit they’d gone to at least three prior shows.
But despite their following, the band’s members aren’t quite local music celebrities—not in the traditional sense, anyway. White Ford Bronco (that’s a singular Bronco, as in the car O.J. Simpson rode in during his 1994 low-speed police chase) is a cover band, after all, and no matter how talented they may or may not be, they’ll always seem to inhabit a lower musical stratum than even the most mediocre local rock band. Everyone raves about how fun the band is, but no one really comments on the members’ musical prowess. As 25-year old Madeleine MacNeil put it while dancing with a group of friends in denim overalls, “They play the carpool soundtrack. For us, these are our jams.” (MacNeil politely declined to speak to me until after the band finished its cover of the Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones.”)
That doesn’t mean that White Ford Bronco’s members aren’t serious musicians, or that they don’t have ambitions outside of imitating superstars from their fans’ middle-school days. It just means that it’s hard to inspire anything deeper than dance moves and singalongs when you’re performing a rendition of Salt N’ Pepa’s “Shoop” that’s even poppier than the original. Still, the band was a runner-up for “Best Local Band” in City Paper’s Best of D.C. and took home the grand prize for “Best Concert You’ve Seen in the Last Year,” beating out Beyoncé (who likely didn’t campaign as actively as the local band did for the award), Imagine Dragons, and Sharon Jones.
Most of the band’s members have music projects on the side, too. Gustafson went to college at the University of Buffalo to study voice. Bassist Sean McCauley, 34, plays in a rock band, the Dead Women, that performs original songs at small, well-regarded rock clubs like DC9 and Velvet Lounge. Valencia, 32, once wanted to be a full-time guitar-playing songwriter, but eventually opted to get his master’s degree in political science at Georgetown. Drummer Max Shapiro and guitarist Ken Sigmund, both 30, are former members of various local rock bands. White Ford Bronco has played about 350 shows, performed at about 15 weddings (with 10 scheduled for this year), and practices together every Saturday for five hours.
“We’re a rock band that happens to play ’90s music,” Shapiro says.
Sounds like a teenage dream come true. So what would the Sigmund of the ’90s say of him playing in White Ford Bronco?
“‘I’m going to be playing Hanson when I’m 30? Fuck you.’”
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Mills’ most serious threat to the “biggest fan” title is probably Chris Zimmerman, a 33-year-old financial consultant who’s trying to purchase an actual white Ford Bronco so that he and his friends can roll up to a concert in the car that lent the band its name. Zimmerman hasn’t found the perfect one yet, but he says he’s willing to put $5,000 into the venture. Throughout the U Hall concert, Zimmerman was packed into one of the first few rows in front of the stage, belting out each song, making just enough room to get down on one knee and sing along with Valencia to a U2 song.
“I kind of tend to take things to the extreme,” Zimmerman says. He’s hoping to book the band for a party and thinks the members charge $5,000 for a private gig (the band wouldn’t give me a price list), but says, “we’ll talk them down, we’re friends with the band.”
That’s the thing that might make White Ford Bronco the most widely known local band: Everyone—not just members of the sometimes-exclusive local music scene—thinks they’re friends with the band. “Gretchen’s the coolest girl in D.C.,” Zimmerman’s brother says. Another person proudly tells me that he ran into Gustafson on the street the other week.
And then there are the groupies. Gustafson says that sometimes, when White Ford Bronco shows are sold out at fratty bars like Acre 121 in Columbia Heights or Irish Times near Union Station, people in line will try to convince the bouncer to let them through by name-dropping Gustafson. And the band loves it. Fans sometimes bribe the members with booze to play their song requests, and after the show, Gustafson can be found happily mingling with fans and friends. (The details are murky, but, according to the band, at least two members have dated fans.)
Groupies aside, the band members say they’re happy keeping their day jobs for now—but if the money was right, they’d consider making the band a full-time gig. Until then, they’ll continue to grow their fanbase—those who want to sing along to Pearl Jam, yes, but also the increasing number of recent college grads who were born in the ’90s and associate the decade’s music with the boy-band pop tunes of the turn of the century.
“[The decade] really has such a broad range,” Gustafson says. “”I think that’s what makes us appeal to so many people. We do play everything from 1990 to 1999. Because we play everything, everyone has a good time.”
So whether D.C. music fans like it or not, the members of White Ford Bronco have cemented themselves as some of D.C.’s most recognized local musicians. There are, after all, just a handful of other local bands that can boast a headlining gig at the 9:30 Club. The only real difference between White Ford Bronco and those other bands is that, while the others are struggling to write songs, White Ford Bronco is struggling to figure out how to get a 22-year-old to dig a song by the Cranberries and a 32-year-old to listen to a certain Britney Spears song just one more time—all in the same sweaty set.
Photos by Matt Dunn