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Snake Charmers 

Detroit, the only metropolis to compete consistently for the dubious honor of murder capital of the U.S., is a dangerous city, and the Detroit Cobras are a dangerous band. For a long time, that meant dangerously unpredictable. In 2002, crowds who saw them shake the rafters for a two-hour set at the Circle Bar showed up on time the next night for their listed gig at the Matador, only to wait ... and wait. And wait. Until finally, well after midnight, a petulant nest of Cobras showed up to halfheartedly hiss their way through a generously estimated 15 minutes before slithering offstage to whatever den of iniquity they'd dragged themselves out of to make it to the Matador. More recently, at the CMJ music conference in New York City in 2005, I ran into a tour manager for Bloodshot Records, the label that picked up the Cobras that year and was shepherding them on their virgin tour under that management. As the band's showtime approached, he checked his watch nervously and forced a smile: "I gotta go early," he told me. "I'm not sure if I'm going to meet the good Cobras ... or the evil Cobras."

The people who paid good money for the Matador show are still bitching about it. The people lucky enough to pick the shatteringly soulful Circle Bar show are still talking about it, which just goes to prove that when the Detroit Cobras are good, they're very, very good, and when they're bad, they still make good gossip. So Jack White punched the Von Bondies guy for the cameras? Big whoop. This is Motor City drama, for real.

For the uninitiated, the Detroit Cobras have spent the past 10 years or so establishing a name by raiding it's member's very fine record collections for obscure R&B and soul selections that they run through the punk wringer -- not so much in sound but in attitude -- for a full-on house-rocking effect that in any other hands would be simply called a cover band. Its secret weapon? Put simply -- soul. The sparks that fly between the girlie version of the Mick and Keith team -- guitarist Mary Ramirez and blonde, blowsy, sandpaper-voiced belter Rachel Nagy -- could, with the proper scientific equipment, reanimate James Brown himself. In four albums and a handful of EPs, the two have paid tribute to -- and reinvented -- some of the finest hip-shakers and tear-jerkers from the vinyl crypt, by luminaries like Solomon Burke, Jackie DeShannon, Detroit's Nathaniel Mayer and New Orleans' own soul queen Irma Thomas, branding their own ineffable mark onto each.

Since signing to Chicago-based Bloodshot Records in 2004 (after graduating from Detroit stalwart label Sympathy for the Record Industry, occasional home of garage royalty like the Oblivians, Roky Erickson, Tav Falco, various Billy Childish projects and a little two-piece called the White Stripes), the Cobras have matured in a subtle but perceptible way, modulating the all-out assault of its early records. Baby, its first release for that label, featured the talents of Greg Cartwright as both producer and guitarist. His rough-edged rock attack has roots in his tenure with the seminal Memphis garage-rock trio the Oblivians, and his pop sensibilities are evident in his current project, the Reigning Sound. The plumpest petal in his laurel crown, though, is probably his partnership with the girl-group legend, Shangri-La's vocalist Mary Weiss, with whom he wrote and produced her first album in three decades, last year's Dangerous Game (Norton). Maybe it was his work in the trenches with Mary and Rachel that prepped him to reanimate that street-level sweetness, since that pair embodies (with a startling authenticity) the switchblade-in-a-bouffant combination of toughness and pathos invented by Weiss and her contemporaries like Ronnie Spector. Where the first two records exploded breathlessly, like flash paper, Baby was a smoldering coal, including the Allen Toussaint-penned Betty Harris gem "Mean Man," Irma Thomas' wistful "It's Raining" and a masterfully menacing take on "I Wanna Holler (But The Town's Too Small)" that far surpasses the original by Gary U.S. Bonds. For trivia fans, Baby also contains the Cobras' only original track -- "Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat)," a danceable R&B romp inspired by a Web site run by a group of New Orleanians, which hosted a gallery of photos of themselves and their friends ... eating hot dogs.

The Cobras second Bloodshot release, April's Tied & True, found Nagy -- who elected to produce the album herself -- in a more pensive, subdued attitude. Possibly because she was going through a well-publicized breakup at the time, Nagy selected songs of obsessive and then broken love, like Gino Washington's creepy "Puppet On A String," the Sonics' defiant "Leave My Kitten Alone" and Irma Thomas' sweetly transcendent "The Hurt's All Gone." Has Tied & True found the Cobras in a special, grown-up place? Maybe -- for now. But does that mean the show will be lacking in hot-blooded, Detroit steel rock? Not likely.

click to enlarge The Detroit Cobras can be sweet and soulful or venomous. - DOUG COOMBE
  • Doug Coombe
  • The Detroit Cobras can be sweet and soulful or venomous.
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