By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
More Crackhouse Than Winehouse
Detroit Cobras Give Vintage R&B a Vital Soul Kiss
Contrary to popular belief, Detroit isn't a shithole: It's actually a big compost pile, endlessly recycling its cultural equity into a new, steamier form under the weight of what's come before. The new Ford Mustang's a retread of the old Steve McQueen Bullitt Mustang; even the sex-texting scandal of the city's current mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, calls to mind the city's notorious '80s mayor Coleman Young, who likewise was bonking a staffer, then denied any impropriety—even though there was a kid to show for it.
It's this cultural thrift-store-ism that represents everything great and terrible about the Motor City. Which is why it's not the aw-shucks, kids-show blues of the White Stripes, but the hard, Amy Winehouse-goes-to-the-crackhouse R&B of the Detroit Cobras that makes them Detroit's house band, even if the house (and the band) can seem like boarded-up reminders of how great things used to be.
Founded in 1996 by attitude-and-estrogen duo Rachel Nagy and Maribel Restrepo and aided by an endless litany of sidemen and touring incarnations, the Cobras devised a simple-yet-genius concept: play relatively obscure R&B songs by Jackie DeShannon, Irma Thomas, Otis Redding, etc., but in the chitlin-circuit way they were originally presented. While late-'90s Detroit teemed with shitty local bands playing shitty, so-raw-powered-they're-undercooked MC5/Stooges songs at shitty venues, the Cobras took at least one shitty out of the equation, playing songs they embraced with a mix of reverence and inspiration from obscure soul 45s. Sometimes they turned in Cat Power-like re-imaginings, but usually they took it back to a hard roadhouse swing. Their version of Redding's "Shout Bama Lama" holds up to any; it's as much theirs as Aretha made Otis' "Respect" hers.
Detroit's garage revival flickered, flamed, smoldered and went out with all the pomp and circumstance of a lipstick-stained Newport Menthol in a foil ashtray (the Electric Six are doing those White Gold "Got Milk?" commercials, and the Von Bondies are mounting a comeback—it's never too early for '02 nostalgia). But the Cobras carved out a nice niche for themselves over three albums (their newest, Tied & True, has more girl-group swing to it), turning into the Winehouse-crackhouse R&B revue. (And the crackhouse thing isn't far from the truth; a former Cobra bassist actually tracked down one of those forgotten R&B songwriters the band covered . . . in a crackhouse).
And that's maybe the most Detroit thing about the Cobras: At their shambolic best, they represent the other side of the whole choreographed, charm-schooled, Motown-bootstraps success thing. They're heirs to the ones who didn't make it as big, the one-hit wonders; one such artist even sent the Cobras new material. "Unfortunately, there's a reason it was a one-hit," Nagy told a Wisconsin blog a few years ago.
Nagy's currently not doing interviews; her phone broke, and she hasn't bothered to replace it. But she's admitted that she doesn't have much to say, which is why her preferred mode of expression is other people's songs. But it's not like the Cobras couldn't write their own songs. Hell, their most consistent drummer of the past five years is Kenny Tudrick, a sporadic Kid Rock collaborator who co-wrote both the hick-hop hit "Cowboy" and the title track of Rock's current touring excuse, "Rock N Roll Jesus." On the Cobras' last record, 2005's Baby, Nagy and producer Greg Cartwright wrote the Cobra's only original, "Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat)," which—and this is a compliment—sounds just like their other stuff.
"I don't particularly think that I'm such a fucking genius that I'm going to be able to tell the world something they don't already know, that hasn't been said a million times already," Nagy told popmatters.com last year. "So much modern music is just a copy of a copy of a copy. It's all got too much now. People don't even know where their shit is coming from; they don't even know they're copying shit. I just like to go back and acknowledge that it's already been done—and done much better—and have fun with that."
So in a more perfect world, the Cobras would soar on the wings of the Duffy/Winehouse soul-diva revival, maybe get hand-picked by the Stones to open a tour. But as they well know, Detroit is anything but a more perfect world. Winehouses come and go, but there'll always be crackhouses.
Detroit Cobras perform with Les Sans Culottes and the Johns at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Wed., 10 p.m. $12.