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Memphis to the Motor City

The Detroit Cobras turn obscure Southern soul into garage-rock party music.

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Mary Ramirez can't wait to leave the Motor City.

"Everyone in this town is screwed. I'm ready to get the fuck out of here," the Detroit Cobras' guitarist says, bitching about rising gas prices, the recent announcement that Ford will lay off 30,000 workers, and the junkies, bums, and thieves who roam the neighborhoods around Wayne State University.

"And the Super Bowl -- what a joke," Ramirez says with scorn, happy that on Sunday, February 5th, when the Seattle Seahawks and the Pittsburgh Steelers clash on Ford Field, the Detroit Cobras will be in Memphis, preparing to take the stage at the Hi-Tone Café.

While they don't play here often, the Detroit Cobras are Bluff City favorites. The punk-meets-R&B cover band parlays obscure Southern soul singles such as Dan Penn's "Slippin' Around," a seldom-heard Stax side called "Weak Spot," and Bobby Womack's "Baby Help Me" into sneering garage-rock anthems and turns guitar-gospel tunes such as the Staple Singers' "You Don't Knock" into smoldering party songs, one-upping well-meaning DJs with fiery, live renditions of their favorite records. Think the Royal Pendletons led by a sharpened knife, in the person of singer Rachel Nagy, a self-described hardass who tosses off lyrics with a breathtakingly casual insolence.

According to Ramirez, she and Nagy belong to "the cult of Greg Cartwright." It's a perfect match: On their 1998 debut, Mink, Rat or Rabbit, the Detroit Cobras initiated a relationship with their cover of "Bad Man" (a song ex-Memphian Cartwright and then-bandmate Jack Yarber wrote while in the Compulsive Gamblers), which the Cobras rechristened "Bad Girl." Last year, they recruited Cartwright to help record their third album, Baby. Now, the Reigning Sound frontman occasionally tours with the group, filling on second guitar. And yes, Ramirez confirms, Cartwright will appear with them in Memphis.

"Greg is phenomenal," she says. "I'm not intimidated by him. I'm just in awe. He has a musical sensibility that's so natural, and he's an extremely hard worker. With the Cobras, he doesn't just give us what we want. He gives us what we need.

"And," she adds with a chuckle, "of anyone playing with this band, he gives me the least amount of trouble."

On many levels, Baby, which was released in mid-January on Chicago's Bloodshot label, has upped the ante for the Detroit Cobras, which Ramirez insists started as a party band "because we lived in a cold place with nothing to do, and we craved social activity."

For the last few years, music-industry pundits have focused their gaze on Detroit, anxious to see which, if any, garage bands might replicate the White Stripes' good-luck streak. With one song, "Cha Cha Twist," already plucked from Baby to provide the soundtrack for a Coca-Cola commercial, the Detroit Cobras just might be it.

"People are accusing us of selling out, but I want to know who am I selling out to?" Ramirez asks. "It ain't a commercial for shit I don't like. And the song is called 'Cha Cha Twist' -- it's not something deep! Who cares! We'd probably do it for a case of beer and a hundred bucks each."

Ramirez points to "Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat a)," the Detroit Cobras' first original song, which was inspired by the Web site WatchMeEatAHotDog.com.

"We came up with this stupid song, and we were like, yes! This song isn't deep on any level. It's silly. Greg tried to intellectualize it with lyrics about putting hot dogs on the grill, but we said no way. I was trying to use that song to get a free box seat at Tiger Stadium, because I love baseball. Think about it: If 'Hot Dog' got used by the Tigers, I'd be a hero. Detroit would love me!

"Right now," Ramirez insists, pointing to the legion of Motown tunes, Led Zeppelin riffs, and Iggy Pop songs used to hawk items on TV, "commercials are better than radio. I tap my toe when I hear this stuff on TV, which is more than I can say for what I hear on the radio these days. The Detroit Cobras were born in reaction against radio, built in reaction to the radio sucking."

Being from Detroit, the Cobras have gotten a first-hand lesson in how to "sell out" the right way.

"I remember when Jack White first came back to Detroit after the White Stripes got big," Ramirez says. "He's a smart guy. He was already making a package when he had no money. And now he has the ability to take advantage of opportunities without selling himself short. Someone asks, 'Do you want to do a commercial?' You don't say no. You say, 'Well, what's the commercial for?' That's what I've learned from watching Jack.

"Luckily," Ramirez says, "in Detroit, you can hustle. You can sustain yourself short-term, and it's a good breeding ground. Like Memphis, it's so broken down that you can live pretty cheap."

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