"We're a very high-maintenance band," confesses Christina Ortega, singer and guitarist for the Front Range's Velveeta Sisters. "When we get gigs, we tell them, 'We really need a big dressing room with electrical outlets, okay? Trust me--when you see us, you'll understand.'"
"It takes us a long time to get prepped for a gig," confirms Miss Polly Esther, a fiddler and back-up vocalist known offstage as Judy Hageman. "I've been in a lot of bands before, and it's never been this much trouble."
Fortunately, these efforts are paying off: Local audiences have been melting for the Sisters (Ortega, Esther, vocalist/guitarist Jackie Delaporte, vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Henry and bassist Cathay Zipp) since their first public appearance. No doubt the folks who produce Maybelline and Aqua Net are big fans, too.
The group--whose moniker pays tribute to a quasi-dairy product that's all too familiar to anyone who grew up in the Seventies--got its start last January during a party hosted by Delaporte. It was there, according to Henry, that nagging by Steve Burnside, a mutual friend who plays with the Zukes of Zydeco, helped convince them to put together an all-girl band for his annual Telluwhut Festival, a down-to-earth alternative to the pricey Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The Boulder-based bash, at which a $5 cover charge buys attendees a backstage pass and all the beer they can drink, typically features well-known bluegrass and folk acts that perform under goofy pseudonyms. "But," says Ortega, "they decided our name was dumb enough to keep."
The Telluwhut session was so successful that the Sisters decided to keep their fledgling musical collaboration aloft. "None of us had time that we could commit to a project," Esther insists. "But it worked too well."
In the months since then, the five have opened up for Southern Exposure in the Keystone area and appeared at this summer's Swallow Hill Folkathon. At the latter show, the combo received a standing ovation after its second song--and once they'd finished their set, the Sisters were swarmed by well-wishers. "This one bunch of girls who looked like they were about college age came up to us and said, 'You guys are awesome! You're our heroes!'" Ortega notes. "They said we were inspirational to them, and I was like, 'Oh, my God.' It was so bizarre and very humbling."
"And then," Zipp elaborates, "there were children who just wanted to come up and touch our costumes."
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Such exchanges have become more common of late. The Sisters have been recognized by devotees while shopping and attending shows at Red Rocks. But the players' unique look is only a part of their appeal. Just as important as the outfit's blend of high-camp theatrics and low-tech instrumentation (Ortega sometimes provides rhythmic accompaniment by scraping an abrasive kitchen brush against a now-ragged Quaker Oats container) is its emphasis on first-rate musicianship. "That's been our approach from the start," Ortega says. "Let's give them an entertaining show, but let's also blow them away with the music. Because they don't really expect that when they see five women all dolled up."
So what should audiences hope to get from a Velveeta Sisters performance? For starters, great singing. The operatically trained Ortega provides a charismatic focal point, while both Delaporte and Henry prove themselves to be no less capable of commanding an audience's attention. As for the set list, it leans heavily toward diverse chestnuts ranging from Peter Goble's "Moundsville Pen" to covers of Eurythmics favorites. In between, Delaporte, currently the group's only songwriter, applies her bluesy howl to the works of Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy, while Henry specializes in the twangy folk rock of artists such as Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Still, the gimmicks don't hurt. During a recent date at Boulder's Caffe Sole, bandmembers briefly encircled Ortega, who was having problems remembering a particular lyric, in a mock attempt to channel the rockabilly spirit of Patsy Cline. The musicians have also taken to hurling individually wrapped cheese slices into audiences--a major improvement over the cheese chunks on toothpicks they used to pass around. However, the new approach is not without its dangers. While Delaporte has discovered a generally reliable technique for cheese distribution (she throws the packets "from the wrist, like a Frisbee"), Henry warns, "There's no way to control those slices. They just have a mind of their own. And they can take off heads if they happen to hit the wrong way."
In addition to working on their pitching, the Sisters are looking to the future. While no firm plans have been made concerning the production of a CD, the women have already come up with an idea: They want to cut an Easter-themed project titled, appropriately enough, Cheezes of Nazareth. "We're sort of just following the flow of this," Esther concludes. "Because it wasn't really supposed to happen.