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By Thomas Matich
This past season of “American Idol” was frustrating to watch. Aside from Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze, the contestants weren’t able to muster much originality or “wow factors” in their performances of songs that ranged from classic, current and obscure. If there was one lesson the judges tried to instill in every singer, it was that you had to own the songs and bring originality and creativity to the cover. Otherwise, you’re doing karaoke.
When it comes to taking on another songwriter’s material and transforming it into a visceral performance that can reinvent how the song affects an audience, the Killer Flamingos are Detroit’s executioners of swift technique. They can take Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” and inject it with a hypodermic needle of testosterone, as their rumbling guitars grow the track some rock ‘n’ roll balls of steel. The Flamingos, who are headlining Motor City Pride on June 6, give these Top-40 hits some electric heat and raw soul that only a tight live band can deliver.
“If you would’ve told me 10 years ago I’d be playing some of the material we’re playing now, I would say, ‘Yeah, right,'” admits bassist David Gondoly. “But it changes your approach to how you play music, like the dance stuff we play, for my instrument it’s totally different from being in a rock band. It’s cool – you’re relearning your instrument and growing as a player so much by doing that. If I were to sit there and play alt-rock my whole life, I would know how to play one style of music and that would be it.”
These Flamingos are chameleons in the night, playing packed clubs in the Detroit area for over a decade, changing up their styles and songs to give the crowd a lethal dosage of what’s hot on the charts and reinventing timeless jams with a fresh twist. The band formed in the mid ’90s when radio station 89X was ushering grunge and alternative rock into the mainstream. Keyboardist Darren Drake is the remaining original member as the current lineup has been intact for the last 10 years, with drummer Tim Webber joining them four years ago.
When Webber came aboard not only did he add his skillful drumming and gruff, whiskey-coated voice that falls somewhere between Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Metallica’s James Hetfield, he became an openly gay member of one of the biggest bands in Detroit.
“There couldn’t be a better band to be with being gay than this band,” Webber says. “I’ve been in other bands that, they might tell you they’re cool with it, but I don’t think they would be. When I said, ‘Could we do Pride fest, guys?’ not one person was like, ‘Ughh.’ It was just a no-brainer and I really dig that. Unfortunately, and I hate saying that, there’s a lot of bands that wouldn’t want to be a part of that, which is shit; you got some rock macho fucking guy that’s like, ‘I’m not playing some (fag fest).'”
On a cool Sunday night, the Killer Flamingos sit outside of Luna on a patio facing Main Street. The longstanding Royal Oak alternative-rock club has been the band’s home on Sunday evenings since August of last year. Over the years, the crew has taken up residence at venues such as Fifth Avenue Billiards, with the rare ability for a local band to consistently draw hundreds of people in. A big ingredient in their successful formula is that they cater to the masses, rather then seeking the fleeting stamps of “cred.”
“We’re essentially a party band,” Webber says. “We used to do a lot of original material and everything, but we really focused on being, in my opinion, the best cover band we could be. If you’re gonna do something, you might as well go 110 percent with it.”
The Flamingos hope that when they play Motor City Pride at 6 p.m. their performance will give the festival a boost of musical energy to raise the roof off the celebration rumbling in downtown Ferndale. Webber jokes that he hopes to find a sugar daddy, and the rest of the band cracks about mistaking the “memo” regarding the gig actually being for the “Home Pride Bread Fest.”
“To be honest, Pride fest is very big to me because, not to get political, I really think gay rights is the last thing in America that isn’t equal,” Webber says. “We even have this great African-American president now, but I still think gay rights has a long way to go.”
With spiked hair, a scruffy beard and earrings, Webber has a Seth Rogen-esque larger-than-life personality, as he easily plays emcee when being behind the drums on stage. Yet, as a band with four singers, everyone has distinct charismas that beam out and draw feet to the dance floor. At Luna, the Flamingos ripped razor-sharp renditions from a gamut of tracks, including Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire” and Naughty By Nature’s “Hip-Hop Hooray.”
As the lone female in the Flamingos, Michelle Carravallah is definitely the main vocal fixture and a howling vixen of rock cool. But everyone holds it down on stage. Drake bops and jives behind the keys and Todd Best swings and wails his guitar like a warrior wielding an axe. Watching the band is similar to those moments when “Idol” superstars such as Adam Lambert or Fantasia nailed a performance, only magnetized because the Flamingos are a tour de force band. Plus, their song choices are right on target: They give people what they want.
“The truth is, nowadays, the Lady Gagas and the Ke$has, that’s what’s big, so whatever’s in iTunes Top 10, we’re gonna hit it,” Webber says. “There’s definitely songs that we can play probably for the next 10 years, like a ‘Mr. Brightside’ that’s almost hit that classic mark, but then there are songs that we play for a couple months and then they die, i.e. Katy Perry.”
“If they don’t get a response from the crowd, they just kind of disappear,” Carravallah adds.
Formed during the era of flannel, the Flamingos have stayed relevant as the pop music scope has become a bright rainbow-colored jukebox, with dance-pop, electronic, indie, teenybopper, ’80s and hip-hop filling up our iPods. And all of this music is increasingly gay friendly as more musicians come out. Therefore, there must be a place for young people to go party and dance to this new breed of tunes. Just as the legendary DJs at gay discos of yesteryear had the magic touch, the Killer Flamingos have that “X Factor.”
“How many times have one of us heard, ‘Oh, you guys are in a cover band. Where’s your soul at?'” Gondoly says. “I’m just like, ‘I play music four to five nights a week; I make a living.’ If I played one night a month and then I worked the rest of the week at the gas station that would make me a musician? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Some should just learn to swallow their pride.
Motor City Pride, Main Stage
6-7 p.m. June 6