Ocie Melanson is leaning against a speaker and absent-mindedly tapping a crescent-shaped tambourine against her hip as the stiflingly hot rehearsal studio, which looks like a hollowed-out garage that’s been wallpapered with old band posters, grows loud from a heated dispute about a minor-chord shift. The bass player is shaking his head as the keyboardist taps on random keys. The band is not short of reasons to be tense.
Leather & Lace, Melanson’s Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks tribute band, is performing in less than a week at the National Harbor—a gig it managed to book after a Facebook campaign—and the band has a lot of new material to cover.
Melanson acts as the mediator. Dressed in bright pink shirt with a cartoon panda on it, she brushes aside the argument and, with the tone of an exasperated babysitter, saying, “Don’t worry about it, let’s just keep going.”
She is the face of Leather & Lace and in an instant the tension dissolves as her voice shifts from taut frustration to a lilting hum that morphs into the belting first notes of ‘Sisters of the Moon,’ the showstopper of the set. The sharp crack of a cymbal punctuates the end of her performance.
But after three songs, there’s another interruption. An off-sounding harmony causes Russ Clarke, the band’s guitarist, the musical director, and Melanson’s husband, to begin explaining a vocal progression to his wife and the backup singer, Amy Strow. His hand is moving up and down like a malfunctioning elevator in an attempt to demonstrate how the “oooohs” of the third verse of ‘You Make Loving Fun’ should go.
“Since it’s our first time practicing [for this gig], we have a lot of kinks to work out. This is our only practice until the big show,” he says, shrugging. “We’ll figure it out—that’s my answer for everything.”
Tim Gove, the bassist, is eating a bag of Doritos and then frowns when he realized his fingers are stained orange with cheese dust. Clarke laughs. “So professional,” he says. Gove walks off to the grimy bathroom to wash his hands.
“I am very serious about this and right now very determined because there is a Fleetwood Mac tribute from New Jersey playing in the area, and I know we kick their ass,” Clarke says. “So my game face is on full-tilt boogie.”
Melanson admits that taking on the legendary songbook of Stevie was intimidating, but any insecurity she felt disappears when she hears the roar of an eager audience.
“The audience reaction is what keeps me going,” Melanson says. “It’s them wanting to believe they’re seeing the real Stevie Nicks. So it makes me want to do my job better. For me, it’s an escape from reality.”
Growing up poor in Baltimore City, Melanson needed an escape from reality. As a little girl, she would fall asleep while listening to the “Rumours” album on loop. She sang whenever she could at karaoke bars, where she eventually met Clarke, where he was a DJ. They were both married to other people at the time, but they became close and eventually divorced their other spouses and got married in 2000.
Clarke, who also works as a comic hypnotist, was hesitant to start a band, because he felt like they didn’t know enough about the industry to succeed. But, after getting “burned out dealing with the brides and their mothers” as a wedding DJ, he finally took the plunge and they started an acoustic group in 2010. In 2012, they were inspired by another successful cover band and shifted their focus to Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks.
Melanson has come see Nicks as something of an alter ego. “It’s really a mental thing for me, I have to really think about it and run videos through my head,” she says. “I have to turn into that. That’s not me, I have to make that transformation. While my hair and makeup’s getting done, which can take two hours, that’s my Zen time.”
“It always amazes me every time we do a big show especially watching Ocie transform and tear up the Stevie persona,” Clarke says.
But it takes a lot of work. During a break in rehearsal, Melanson complains about the capes she has to resew when she gets home. With her big heels and bigger hair, Melanson is not only the voice of the band, she is also its look. She recreates the whimsical wardrobe of her hero by hand, and each set features a dozen or more costume changes: Bedazzled capes, top hats covered in feathers, and black velvet gloves are only a small part of her arsenal of apparel. Melanson has been naked backstage more times than she can count, struggling to wiggle into whatever costume the song calls for.
“I already have my soap and water spritzers planned,” says Felicia, her assistant, who is in-charge of the blink-and-you-miss-it costume changes, of the lubricating sprays she uses to help Melanson slide into her suits.
Felicia is watching as the band winds down after their last song, ‘Silver Spring,’ and tells a story of when Melanson was watching a video of her performance and turned to her in awe and said, “I just can’t believe that’s me.”
Felicia looks up at Melanson, who is still softly swaying as Clarke nods his head as the final notes reverberate through the sweaty rehearsal space.
“She is Stevie,” says Felicia. “She wanted this to happen, so it did.”