The Detroit Cobras give new life to old soul

Blessed versions
By BARRY THOMPSON  |  June 1, 2009

NO FILLER: "In some ways, we're our own mixtape," says Rachel Nagy (left, with fellow Cobra Mary Ramirez).

There's nothing lazier than the typical cover band: musicians taking the easy way out for listeners who don't want to be challenged — or, worse yet, revisiting the glory years when their shitty taste in music was current and therefore socially acceptable. (No offense to tribute bands, as their requisite pageantry is the opposite of laziness.)

However, the last two cover bands I've seen were mind-blowing, albeit for totally different reasons. The first was the Detroit Cobras, a little over a year back when they opened for X. Emerging as sauntering, sneering bad-asses with Rachel Nagy's smoky crooning at the forefront, they served up raunchy garage-rock renderings of early R&B, soul, and blues of varying obscurity. I'd never heard any of it before, and I didn't realize they were playing new versions of old songs until last week.

(The second occasion was when I went to hear my high-school buddy's cover band during a visit to my home town. I had no idea that half my graduating class would also be at the bar, super-excited to hear performances of '90s-rock-radio faves like Green Day's "Welcome to Paradise" and Sublime's "Date Rape." Yeek.)

Nagy, over the phone on the way to Tucson, for the Cobras' next tour stop (they'll be at T.T.'s next Thursday), makes Detroit sound a lot cooler than where I grew up.

"In Detroit, there's not a lot to do, so everybody plays music for the hell of it," she says. "It's not like a lot of places where it's, 'Oh, we're going to get a band together, hit the road, touch the world, and become rock stars.' You drink beer and play music. You play a house party, people really like it, and next thing we knew, a club from New York called us saying, 'Hey, you want to come play?' We're like, 'All right.' It just kind of went from there."

This was sometime around 1994, so it's come quite a ways and seen many roster facelifts since, with Nagy and guitarist Mary Ramirez being the lone regulars. (The latest of their handful of CDs is the 2007 Bloodshot disc Tied & True.)

Nagy, who only recently left Detroit for Philadelphia (romantic and financial imperatives), doesn't see the Cobras as a cover band. It's clear they don't fit the paradigm of performing verbatim versions of instant crowd pleasers. The Ronettes, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Irma Thomas, and Ike and Tina Turner are recognizable enough, but to be well acquainted with Brice Coefield, Gary U.S. Bonds, and Hoagy Lands — apparently it helps if you're a Detroit local.

"In Detroit, this stuff is everywhere," Nagy explains. "It's not like New York, where there are a million cool kids looking for all the coolest stuff. There's always older stuff in the record stores, always stuff at garage sales and bake sales, some old guy dying, leaving all his stuff."

Turns out, the mixtapes cool kids are putting together are bullshit compared to the mixtapes dead cool kids could've made.

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