by John Sewell
Remember the halcyon daze of 2002 when it seemed that every band with â“Theâ” tacked onto its name was touted as being a savior of rock'n'roll? Yes, any band with a hint of sass and a punkish approach was lumped into an amorphous neogarage niche that, like all the other prefab rock subgenres before it, proved empty in the long run.
Five years on, many of 2002's â“Theâ” bands have either disappeared or are toiling in comparative obscurity: Where are The Thrills, The Stills, The Kills, The Datsuns, The Libertines, and The Von Bondies? With The Strokes on some kind of indefinite hiatus and The Hives set for a puzzlingly misdirected tour with snoozers Maroon 5, only Detroit's The White Stripes are surviving in good stead.
Having a long history of rough and rowdy rock'n'roll and a slew of garage-ish bands, Detroit was seen as a Mecca for all things â“garage.â” â“It's really funny because people said, â‘oh yeah, there's a big spotlight on you,'â” rasps Rachel Nagy, vocalist for The Detroit Cobras, a group that predated the neogarage surge. â“That didn't happen. We've been doing this for a long time without any support. So that didn't really do anything for us or for Detroit.
â“Instead of spotlight on Detroit, it was more like a flashlight,â” Nagy continues. â“Some of the bands had delusions of grandeur, but not us.â”
The Detroit Cobras were one of the few, proud Detroit bands existing prior to the faux garage bubble, and had survived just fine on their own, thank you. And unlike the other bands, The Cobras chose to cover other artists' material instead of flogging anachronistic sounds as something â“new.â” The group delivered its material with such grit, sweat, and verve, one couldn't accuse them of being anything other than the real deal.
â“Nowadays, it's like that old Bible verse that says there is nothing new under the sun,â” says Nagy. â“This is the music we love and we'd rather perform it with integrity. It's really more fun to try to live up to the legacy of other people. I mean, why should we steal someone's four chords, change the lyrics just a bit, and say it's our own?â”
On their latest opus, Tied and True (Bloodshot Records), The Detroit Cobras are firing on all pistons, delivering obscure R&B classics with the bad-girl panache of their antecedents, The Ronettes and The Shangri-La's. With tracks like â“The Hurt's All Gone,â” and â“Leave My Kitten Alone,â” the band charges through sometimes-questionable lyrical content with a wink and a leer.
â“We're definitely not politically correct,â” laughs Nagy. â“That said, I don't think there's anything on the album that's objectionable. The theme of the album is dysfunction and how fucked up love can beâ"it's kind of like a big pile of bad advice for women.â”
Now that the band is known worldwide as a â“covers act,â” Nagy says that people are constantly suggesting material for The Cobras. But Nagy and her longtime aide and abettor, guitarist Mary Ramirez, (â“Mary and I are the band,â” says Nagy) are certainly choosy. â“A lot of people just don't get it,â” says Nagy. â“Just 'cause a song is R&B doesn't necessarily mean it's good. There's gotta be a shine to the song.
â“We've had times when the songs we've covered were so obscure that we couldn't find the authors to pay them their royalties,â” Nagy continues. â“But most of the time the songwriters get their little bit, and that's gratifying for us as well. They appreciate that their material wasn't just lost in the sands of time.
â“It's amazing how much great feedback we've gotten from some of the songwriters. We've even become good friends with some of them, like Jackie DeShannon, for example.â”
While the band has crossed the globe several times, Nagy says that its touring schedule isn't exactly relentless, and that she tries to keep a bit of balance both on and off the road, which includes maintaining her bad-girl status at times. â“We're not out to conquer the world,â” says Nagy. â“And we're not going to play every Hogwallow out there, either. We just tour for two or three months a year.â”
Musical trends may come and go, but The Detroit Cobras will soldier on for as long as Nagy and Ramirez feel like it. And their enthusiasm isn't flagging.
â“I haven't had a normal job in a long time,â” says Nagy. â“Detroit is like Berlin after the war. You don't need five roommates and four jobs to get by here. You just trade off a measure of safety for a measure of freedom.â”
WHO: The Detroit Cobras w/ The American Plague and Willowz WHEN: Wednesday, July 25, 9 p.m. WHERE: Blue Cats
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