Saturday, August 19, 2017

Having Fun with Detroit Cobras On Stage

Rachel Nagy (left) and Mary Ramirez
The Detroit Cobras delivered the goods at Brauer House in suburban Lombard last night, their patented sloppy and tipsy strut through obscure, bad ass rock and roll songs well received by the sizable crowd. It's well known that you roll the dice when you see the Cobras: lead singer Rachel Nagy, she of the superbly emotive and impossibly timeless voice, staggered onto the stage a couple times before when I'd seen the band. Last night she was all there: confident if a bit self-conscious in the opening numbers, forgetting some of the words to "Out of the World" ("because I'm old!" she grinned at the crowd), pausing at one point to indulge herself with a face-bury into the ample cleavage of a besotted fan at the front of the stage, and ordering a "fire brigade" to bring her a Grey Goose and soda near the end of the set. She was fully committed to each bracing song, from the rocking to the "slow skate" ballads, from the silly stuff to the momentous, and her voice.... Well, what can I say about Nagy's voice that hasn't already been said? Whether she's husky close to the mic or rearing back her head and belting from the back of her throat, she owns the songs she sings, renewing each of them out of their obscure past, and the decades-old songs feel as relevant as the contemporary rock and roll over played the PA before the set. Nagy's the real thing. I hope she never puts down the mic.

The rest of the band were loose, in good humor throughout the night, clearly enjoying themselves. (A bucket of iced-down Miller High Life's always helps.) Longtime Cobra Mary Ramirez, grinning and peacocking, plays a muscular rhythm guitar that churns below the songs' surfaces, the engine parts that move them, and swapped occasional aggressive leads with the second guitarist. During Irma Thomas's "Cry On," a heartbreaking ballad, Ramirez looked lost in the sentiment of her expressive playing. (Note: I have no idea who the other guitarists and drummer are; the Cobras' rhythm section is notoriously fluid, and the website, which didn't even list this current Chicago jaunt, is poorly maintained. The lead guitarist looked a bit like Emit Rhodes, if that helps.) Though clearly having fun, Ramirez at times gives the impression of being a slightly older, resentfully responsible kid straitening ties and cleaning the smudged faces of her mates before the trip down to the Principal's office. "Uh guys, this ain't the van, OK?" she addressed her giggling band. "We're in front of a crowd of people now."

My favorite exchange occurred between Nagy and Ramirez after a bit of onstage lovey-dovey during one song:
Nagy: (pointing to Ramirez) That woman is the true love of my life.
Ramirez: (smiling back at Nagy) My best friend is a little salty.
Nagy: It's called sweat, you dipshit!
Ramirez: I've got to keep my sodium intake down!
Nagy: Sorry I don't smell like peppermint and roses!
Bass player: You mean, "Incense and Peppermints."
Nagy: No I don't. 'Cause I'm not a hippie.
Near the end of the set as Nagy danced onstage, she blanched at the lead guitarist's extended vamping. "Hey, I thought we had a no jamming rule!" Lead guitarist: "Well, I thought I saw some ass." And so on. It's hard to know how much of this is shtick, but it's a blast to see a band having so much fun. Things veered into strange territory at times. Nagy made more than one reference to Chicago's violent reputation, which didn't seem to go over well, and on one occasion between songs began lecturing about the fact that dolphins rape other dolphins. As the bass player stepped to the mic to concur, Ramirez swiftly interrupted: "No rapy dolphins, please!" And the band kicked in to the next tune. There were several good-natured roofie jokes. All in a night's work.

Songs were spread over the band's several albums, and a new number, the terrific "Feel Good," rocked the joint. The Cobras play only old R&B and soul covers, with the infamous exception of the original "Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat)" from 2004's Baby ("'Hot dog' means 'slut' in Detroit," Nagy helpfully explained), and they play the eternal chord changes and song structures so lovingly and with such loose pleasure that they give the impression of inviting the crowd to crash on the floor with them as they rifle through their great album and 45s collection. Highlights included the sexy "Weak Spot," "Bad Girl," a deliriously fun "Leave My Kitten Alone," and the perennial raise-the-roof "Hey Sailor." The Detroit Cobras play loud, beery, fun rock and roll, and last night their enthusiasm, energy, and good will matched their catalogue. The phrase "I Know Where You're Coming From" is emblazoned on the band's drum set. I know exactly where the Cobras come from, too, but last night they show that old rock and roll songs can sound like they were written yesterday, in the van.

Friday, August 18, 2017

"A stupid song, a brilliant song"

I pulled out Dave Marsh's book about "Louie Louie" for the first time in a while. I still dig this graph that comes early on:
It is the best of songs, it is the worst of songs. A rock’n’roll song, a calypso song, a sea chanty, a filthy, dirty, obscene song, the story of rock’n’roll in a nutshell, the most ridiculous piece of junk in the history of damnation. A stupid song, a brilliant song, an R&B oldie, a punk rock classic, a wine cooler commercial, an urban legend, a sacred text, a song with roots, a glimpse of the future, the song that defines our purpose, the very voice of barbarism. A song that casts a spell, a song that ought to have been forgotten and many times has been—and for all that, a song that roots into the brain until there’s no erasing it. Barely a song at all—three chords and a cloud of dust; the song that really does remain the same—no matter the reinterpretations it suffers. An old story, an untold story.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Music Without Melody: Jim Carroll on singing rock and roll

JC onstage, Albany, New York, May 13, 1982, Photo by Martin Benjamin
I've been re-reading a lot of Jim Carroll lately. In a passage in Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries 1971-1973, he reveals that he's been thinking about writing lyrics for some rock and roll bands. "Certain friends have prompted me toward this idea for years," he writes. "Some, like Jenny Ann [Patti Smith] have even made the ridiculous proposition that I sing these songs . . . that I actually front a band! They tell me they see the possibilities when I give readings of my poems and diaries. The way I move. The phrasing."

Considering this a bit further, weighing the exciting possibilities against his own perceived limitations, Carroll offers a brief but potent theory of good rock and roll singing: "I do believe that a poet would possess a stronger intuitive sense of phrasing with a rock song . . . ",
that there is a way to tap into the emotions of an audience simply by the cross of a certain phrase, even a single word, against a certain chord. There’s no doubt in my mind. But I respect craft. I believe in technique . . . and my singing abilities are so serious a handicap that it would take a whole new scale to make the entire thing less than ludicrous. Music without melody, where my voice would simply be another rhythm instrument, like a drum.
Sounds to me like the template for many a raw and untutored rock and roll classic. Like this one Carroll and his band cut at the end of the decade:

Photo of Carroll via OB Rag.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Present and Future

Thanks to my DeKalb buddy Kevin Goldstein, a scout for the Houston Astros, we enjoyed sweet seats for the White Sox/Astros game last night at Guaranteed Rate Field. Bad news for Kevin: the Sox commandingly beat the AL-best 'Stros, winning the three-game series. Miguel Gonzales held the Astros to five hits over eight innings, his only miscue surrendering a homer to Derek Fisher in the eighth. For the Sox, Nick Delmonico had three hits and Tim Anderson—who could use a confidence boost—drove in three. The weather was beautiful, the park in a fine mood, the company terrific. A great night.

During the third inning, a friendly Dad-type sat down next to us and asked Kevin what had transpired during a comic infield opera when three Astros infielders let Adam Engel's high pop land among them on the dirt. (Engel was alertly running the whole time, but blew the gift by trying to stretch to third, where he was thrown out: the 2017 Sox season writ small.) Moments later, Kevin introduced me to the man, his boss, Jeff Luhnow, the Astros general manager. It was quite cool to sit with a scout and a GM at a game, imagining seeing what they're seeing, and when Luhnow departed I wished him luck with the rest of his season. (When Amy and I stood to buy some beers, Luhnow had made sure that we were aware that it was Dollar Hotdog Night at Guaranteed Rate—generously promoting the other team's promotion! A class act.) Despite his team's current slump, Luhnow needn't be worried, and he didn't look particular anxious as he watched his team lose: the 'Stros will play in October. As for the Sox, last night was another glimpse into the hoped-for bright future.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Dog Days at the Park

I enjoyed a beautiful night of AA baseball at Canal Park in Akron, Ohio last week. How could I not pull for a team called the Yard Goats!—who, it turned out, handed it to the home team Rubber Ducks that night. Canal Park, built in the mid 1990s, is a beaut, right downtown, tucked into a hill, with plenty of cheap-o parking a block away; the Ohio and Erie Canal runs behind the left-field wall.

It was Dog Day at the park, which was a blast, with pups yipping and yapping all over the concourse, and catching frisbees in the outfield.

But the coolest thing: I'd noticed an inordinate number of #22 Indians jerseys that night. It turns out that Cleveland Indians' second baseman and two-time All Star Jason Kipnis was rehabbing his sore right hammy, and he obliged the crowd with a homer. I must report: to anyone who worries about baseball not sticking with kids these days, just head out to a Minor League game sometime. This adorable twig of a kid in a Kipnis jersey ran down to the netting behind home plate every time Kipnis headed to the plate, and the little fist bump through the net that Kipnis gave to the kid in the on-deck circle, just before he hit the homer, made my night, and the kid's year. Later, Kipnis tossed his batting gloves to a lucky 13-year old in the second row as Kipnis left the field, and the game. I can't really describe the look of "Wow!" joy on the kid's face, and on the faces of every kid in his section. Great stuff, great night.

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