In honour of their first anniversary, Toronto’s very own Spice Girls tribute band will lace up those platform shoes for a massive gig at The Great Hall this weekend. And although ‘90s nostalgia is hitting exhausting heights, it’s never looked or sounded this good.
In the deep, dark Sunday night at the Rehearsal Factory on Geary Ave., just off Dufferin, there comes a familiar sound, out of place amid a backdrop of Slayer-esque metal riffs. “When I say ‘Girl,’ you say, ‘Power.’ GIRL! POWER! GIRL! POWER!” The floor shakes with each stomp and turn, the horns blare, and the little gay boy inside me is ripping through my skin. I’m sitting in on a rehearsal for WANNABE: The Spice Girls Tribute Band, a formidable, punchy, musically-driven collaboration between five girlfriends and a full band—all graduates of the Humber and Ryerson music programs—that’s been entertaining the stages of Toronto for exactly one year now.
To mark the anniversary of WANNABE’s sold-out debut at the El Mocambo in January 2012, the group will be mounting a sleek new stage show at The Great Hall this weekend. Straight up: I’m here to tell you that you must make it your business to go. Because, yes, it’s true: I’m an unapologetic Spice Girls fan in the same vein as people who still dress up for KISS concerts. (But, seriously, if you’re not a Spice Girls fan/appreciator/admirer, you might as well be dead inside.)
The group is comprised of locals Anika Johnson (Sporty), Barbara Johnston (Ginger), Catharine Merriam (Baby), Suzy Wilde (Posh), and Janée Olivia (Scary). Friends since high school (Ginger and Baby are actually sisters IRL), the gals bonded through their respective, and varied, musical endeavours, none of which had much to do with the British girl power phenomenon in any way. “We know a lot of other tribute bands in the city, namely the Daft Punk project,” says Wilde. “One day we were all just talking about how awesome that was, and the idea of Spice Girls came up. We all laughed, but then we actually thought about it.” Six months and a platform-high Facebook thread later, WANNABE became a reality. Four months of rehearsals began immediately.
So why the Spice Girls? “Because they’re awesome!” exclaims Olivia, without hesitation, her hair bouncing with every sentence. (Duh!) “And it’s every little girl’s dream…and a secret dream of men as well.” Johnston, who commands the conversation much like Geri did back in the day, says it’s all about the nostalgia factor. “In the way that people of the ’70s craved the songs of ABBA, our generation is now craving the songs of the Spice Girls, so I’d say we came around when everyone was starting to dance to the songs we all danced to when we were ten.”
It was only so fortuitous that around the time of the group’s first show at the El Mo last year, rumours were floated that the Spice Girls would be reuniting to work on a new musical, Viva Forever!, featuring songs from their catalogue, produced by the woman behind ABBA’s Mamma Mia!. (The stage show debuted last month.) Then the Olympics show happened, and all the world felt like a Spice World again.
As I sit wide-eyed in WANNABE’s rehearsal room trying to keep my composure, it’s a surreal moment: I’m in that scene from Spice World where Nicola, the BFF, visits the girls in anticipation of the Albert Hall gig. I mean, I always knew this would happen, I just didn’t imagine I’d be cast in the role of the pregnant one. (Fun fact: last weekend marked 15 years since the film’s release.) And it’s just my luck, because we’re missing Johnson’s Sporty due to illness, which is just like that time I went downtown to HMV in 1997 for a live appearance only to have it cancelled because Mel C was under the weather! “She was born to play Sporty Spice,” the girls exclaim about Johnson, a trained pianist and classical singer from Stratford, Ontario, who also acts part-time. “And lesbians love her. She’s mastered the worm and all of Mel C’s other signature moves.”
Photo: Paul Aguirre-Livingston/The Grid
Every detail of the WANNABE operation has been studied and considered: from Ginger’s Union Jack dress (found on Yonge Street!), to Mel B’s wild mane and tough Leeds accent, to a ridiculously uncanny Sporty body double. And you watch YouTube videos of WANNABE’s stage show (see below), and think to yourself, Yessss! They’re super serious! For the upcoming Great Hall gig, there’s even a new batch of costumes (“and wigs!”). And as for dancing in platforms? No biggie. “Believe it or not, the platforms in the second act are actually mine from when I was a kid,” says Olivia.
But the instrumentation is what really takes the act, and the audience, to a higher plane. Wilde procured as much sheet music as she could find and personally finished off the arrangements for the full band, which features a two-person horn section. Indeed, the band is killer, a group of endearing, super talented (and dreamy) grown men—dubbed “The Spice Boys”—who have totally been converted into true believers. During a pause for a tweaking of a chord progression on “Saturday Night Divas”, I ask the guitar player for his thoughts on playing these deliciously poppy tunes. “If you would have asked me 10 or 15 years ago, in our teens, I would have said this stuff was totally lame,” he laughs. “But now you can appreciate it a lot more and realize that it’s actually kind of musically brilliant. If there were more compositions like this today, maybe music would suck a little less.” (Lyrically, his point holds true as well. After rediscovering them over a decade later, tunes like “Naked” hit you with a whole new depth.)
Photo: Paul Aguirre-Livingston/The Grid
The group’s live singing is what shocks audience members who don’t know what to expect. “In terms of the vocal harmonies, we spent hours trying to lift who sung what part,” recalls Johnston of the ongoing process. “Most of our voices are similar to [the group], and we’ve had to make adjustments, but we spent so much time trying to sound like them. When they get together, it’s more about their sound—the Spice Girls “sound”—that’s what people want to hear.”
Toronto’s rampant ’90s nostalgia, which has drenched the city in throwback dance parties at venues like Clinton’s, the Annex WreckRoom, and more, has also turned WANNABE into a repeat attraction. “We didn’t expect to do more shows, but when we sold out the El Mo, it was intense,” says Wilde. In the last year, the girls have packed Lee’s Palace, performed at Pride and NXNE, and brought down private corporate and charity events. This past holiday season, they did a show at the Lower Ossington Theatre that included a cover of Mariah’s “All I Want For Christmas.” For the Great Hall gig, they’ll be introducing more covers of songs that the Spice Girls would surely have loved. (I know what they are, but no spoilers!) There’s also a special celebrity host: Emcee Rajiv Surendra (alias: Kevin G.), the rapping mathlete from Mean Girls, who’s an old friend of the group.
I’m a firm proponent that as a decade, the ’90s were pretty meh in most respects. Yet there’s something enduring and vivid about the time that makes people like me—and ’90s-born kids who pretend to know better—absolutely obsessed about looking back as if life would never, could never, be that free/easy/fun again. (Hello, new Internet Explorer “Child of the ’90s” commercial!) “It’s before the internet really took over, before people had smartphones, before people could have access to everything, especially the late ’90s. The early part of the decade was all grunge, and anti-’80s corporate authority,” muses Johnston. “Then the Spice Girls come in with the new wave of pop, really marketed to the tween revolution. Now these people are in their mid-20s and so emotionally attached. We have some that cry at our shows.”
Photo: courtesy of WANNABE
With that level of fan dedication, everyone on the WANNABE creative team is committed to the process of putting on the best shows. “We took this from being a joke to taking it so beyond serious. We’ve all grown into our roles,” laughs Johnston. “Because, in essence, they are roles, like in a musical or a play. These are icons that we’re imitating, but we’ve expanded them because we’re all artists on our own. My Ginger is different now than Geri Halliwell’s—and she created it.” That means you can expect a show with two acts, timed to a total of 90 minutes with about 20 songs, complete with costume changes. Oh, and followed by a ’90s dance party, naturally.
And Girl Power? Totally alive and kicking, and stronger than ever. “Groups of girls as support systems have been around since the beginning of time, but it’s never really talked about because we live in a man’s world,” says Johnston, who thanks the original lineup for unleashing the “secret” in a big way. “I mean, we’re not the Spice Girls, we’re our own version, but we’re exactly the same in that we’re the best of friends and we love working together. It’s so important for women—who have a hard time getting along in this world for so many reasons—to see a group of women loving each other and making fun music together. We’d like people to come to our shows with their girlfriends to have the best time celebrating being friends.”
To sum up this weekend’s show, Wilde puts it succinctly: “Party of the century.” As I gather my things, the group preps to rehearse “2 Become 1.” And, well, tonight really was the night. But Saturday will be even better.
WANNABE: The Spice Girls Tribute Band plays their one-year anniversary show Saturday, Feb. 2 at The Great Hall, 1087 Queen Street West. 19+. $15 advance at Soundscapes, $20 at the door. Doors at 10 p.m. Can’t make it? Save the date for Spice Girls Featuring, a one-night-only dance party coming soon.