FOREWORD: I was lucky enough to catch this exciting high-octane Motor City garage band a few times, once at Mercury Lounge and the other at Maxwells in Hoboken. Detroit Cobras were at the heart of its city’s ‘90s rock resurgence and continue to impress crowded clubs to this day. Unlike every other garage band, the two mainstays are female – the equally hot Rachael Nagy and Mary Restrepo (nee Ramirez). After ‘05s Baby secured a modicum of international stardom, Detroit Cobras returned with ‘07s even better Tied & True. Genuine R & B pop star Tina Turner would dig these awesome chicks. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Formed in ’95 by since-departed guitarist Steve Shaw, the Detroit Cobras give an original spin to little known old school Rhythm & Blues tracks. Fronted by uninhibited bleach-blonde Rachael Nagy, a chain-smoking ex-butcher/exotic dancer whose plump, ripe breasts expose ‘03s striking 19-minute Seven Easy Pieces, and fortified by debonair dark-skinned guitarist Mary Restrepo (plus a revolving cast of male counterparts), this spirited Motor City combo must be seen live to truly appreciate.
After ‘98s well-received long-play debut, Mink, Rat Or Rabbit, put them on the map, the Detroit Cobras returned three years hence with the absolutely essential faux-soul gem, Life, Love And Leaving. Filled to the gills with extraordinary takes on lost classics by seminal black performers Otis Redding, Clyde Mc Phatter, Ike Turner, and Mary Wells, it gallantly revives an era hip-hop heads and nu metal lunkheads may not realize existed. From the gorgeous tear-stained ballad “Cry On” to the furious hip-shaker “Right Around The Corner,” this stimulating masterpiece will strike an emotional chord with stylish contemporaries while simultaneously getting catatonic slackers hustling to the beat.
On the engaging stopgap, Seven Easy Pieces, the DC convincingly cover soul shouter Wilson Pickett’s “99 And A Half Won’t Do” and Roebuck “Pops” Staples’ call and response frolic, “You Don’t Knock.” Blues legend Willie Dixon’s “Insane Asylum” gets a slow burn duet treatment between Nagy and Greg Cartwright of the Oblivians, whose “Bad Man” was re-claimed as “Bad Girl” on Mink, Rat Or Rabbit.
In the meantime, they lent the bewitching dance medley “Cha Cha Twist” to Johnny Knoxville’s Jack Ass: The Movie and completed touring as openers for ‘70s Midwest pop idols Cheap Trick, deservedly securing the band a larger fan base.
AW: Who were your early influences?
MARY RESTREPO: I grew up on Atlantic Records R & B, not Motown. My mother wouldn’t let me listen to rock and roll growing up. She didn’t like white folks music. I was more into Aretha Franklin, Tyrone Davis, Earth Wind & Fire. But I learned to like it more later on. You have no idea how soul singer Millie Jackson (“My Man Is A Sweet Man”) played a role in my life – her and Betty Wright (“Clean Up Woman”). I resented that stuff growing up, but now love it.
How’d you find such cool R & B obscurities and neat B-sides to cover on Life, Love And Leaving?
Everybody shares stuff. It comes and goes from drinking and listening. We found “Hey Sailor” from Todd Abramson at Maxwells on one of his compilations. He put a bunch of them out. He has a great record collection. “Oh My Lover” was the B-side to the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.” But when I went to the Chiffons website, they didn’t list the song so I gave the credit to Ronnie Mack, who wrote the A-side. “Cry On” was written by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, but was miscredited on our album.
The vital Blues exhilaration of “Boss Lady” seems to cross “Bony Moronie” with “Twist And Shout.”
That’s also from a Todd compilation. Rachael found the Guardinias “Laughing At You” on another compilation. The funny thing is none of us were record collectors. They just pass by our hands and if we like ‘em, we hold on to ‘em.
Where’d you get “Won’t You Dance With Me” from?
Billy Lee and the Rivieras – which was the first song cut by Mitch Ryder. Yeah. And the record, because they hang around town, band member Jim Mc Carty told me it was the first song they wrote. It got re-issued by Sundazed and has a picture of them when they’re real young.
Rachael’s singing is so emotionally compelling she brings back fond memories of the Shangri-Las and Ronnie Spector.
Yeah. If you like that stuff, our first album really gets into that. But you gotta have a voice to do that. I don’t, but Rachael does.
There’s a shortage of good vocalists now.
Totally. But there’s no doubt Norah Jones has a great voice. Rachael turned me on to her. The most important part of a band is the voice. American Idol shows you how lame things can get because a singer’s got to have a personality.
Is Rachael from a tough Detroit neighborhood?
No. She has a mother that bakes great apple pies and is as sweet as sugar. Rachael’s a sweetheart. We’re not tough at all. (laughter) She’s like a little angel. Detroit is a great hustle for little angels. You don’t have to have a real job. Living is cheap. So when it came time to hit the road we had freedom to do that. All of a sudden people wanted to hear us. Now we’re paying our bills by doing this – which is kind of cool. We have a real healthy music scene in Detroit. And we have ultimate freedom ‘cause the cops don’t bother you. We’ve got a lot of record stores where you could find stuff real cheap.
How’d the Detroit Cobras come to be?
We were hangin’ around, drivin’ around. But we really didn’t do nothing until Rachael joined and we recorded a 45 six months later in November ’96 (the bluesy “Ain’t It A Shame” backed with the psychedelicized “Slum Lord”). We just basically sat around, put out the single on a local label, and put out two more (the MC5/Gories-like garage rave up “Village Of Love” and “Over To My House” backed with the lo-fi countrified “Down In Louisiana”). Then, we released a full length, Mink, Rat Or Rabbit. Then we broke up. At the end of ’98 to 2000, we recorded Life, Love And Leaving, also for Sympathy For The Record Industry, and then started touring in 2001.
What does Mink, Rat Or Rabbit sound like?
The title’s taken from a line in an Irma Thomas song. It’s a little more raw and primitive. We were just getting started. Rachael’s voice got a little stronger by Life, Love And Leaving. And then on the newest one, Seven Easy Pieces, she’s even stronger. Being on the road has also made us tighter.
How’d you recruit Black Crowes keyboardist Eddie Hawrsh to play bass on Life, Love And Leaving and do some live shows?
When he wasn’t playing for the Crowes, Eddie joined us for awhile. But he had to go back and do other stuff. He was a neighbor so he was around at the time. He lives down the street from my ass, man. He lives right in the middle of the ghetto. There’s a neighborhood here called Cas Corridor that’s poor, but pretty drug free. You could get really nice houses near it.