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Snake Charmers

A little cover band humor: "This is a new one," said Detroit Cobras guitarist Maribel Restrepo during the band's set at the Catalyst last Friday. "A brand new one." At least, I assume it was a joke, since as far as I know, the Detroit Cobras have never played a brand new song by anyone in their entire career. They did record a nice version of the Strokes' "Last Nite" once--though they didn't play it Friday--but since most of their set list comes from 40 or so years ago, "brand new" is probably stretching it.

Then again, with this band you never know. It doesn't even seem fair to call them a cover band, since their unusual approach to the songs makes their versions seem more like new arrangements than garage-rock covers, which of course they technically are. Like The Cramps, who make the early songs they cover sound like they were originally written by and for the insane or the undead (or in the case of something like Dwight Pullen's "Sunglasses After Dark," the insane undead), they've built an unmistakable signature sound out of other people's songs. But the Cobras burn them faster and hotter with a significant dousing of post-Velvet Underground white light/white heat.

Another thing that makes them similar to the Cramps, and dissimilar to most cover bands, is that they're in love with the most obscure, unwanted and barely remembered songs of the rock and soul universe. (Credit group founder Steve Shaw, who allegedly was turned on to this stuff years ago by Big Star legend Alex Chilton.) This show was no exception. When they covered the Marvelettes--a Motown girl group which is already far from a household name, despite the fact that they had several '60s hits--they didn't do "Please Mr. Postman," "Too Many Fish in the Sea," or the oft-covered "The Hunter is Captured by the Game," they did the group's 1965 also-ran single "I'll Keep Holding On." Of course, that track just happens to be one of the most underrated songs in the Motown catalog. What a coincidence!

Likewise, their cover of Otis Redding's "Shout Bamalama" is probably more eagerly anticipated by Cobras fans at their shows than the original was by most Redding fans at his. And I seriously don't know if the Gardenia's 1957 single "I'm Laughing At You" is now available in its original form from anyone, anywhere.

The band also radiates a strange vibe up close and in person--it's hard to tell whether they think they're the coolest thing on earth, or the stupidest. Vocalist Rachel Nagy looks like she's ready to rip someone or something apart, even when she's smiling. Restrepo seems to be holding onto her guitar for dear life, and plays it like it will wrestle its way out of her hands if she doesn't watch it every second. Kenny Trudick is the first drummer I've ever seen who had his own first name scrawled across his drum kit, rather than the band's. I haven't spent a lot of time in Detroit, but I have to believe no one will ever mistake this bunch for, say, the Palo Alto Cobras.

Did I mention they were opening up for Rev. Horton Heat? Nothing against the Rev., but this is the first show in a long time where I actually went to see the opening band--and despite the rather abrupt shortness of their set, I wasn't disappointed.

Elvis Ramone

Caught the Forty-Fives on Friday, too. I can't understand how this band gets compared to the Supersuckers when they have twice the manic garage energy and none of the gritty, heavy riffs and would clearly be more at home on a Nuggets compilation than an AC/DC tribute album. I think they need capes, though. Especially Bryan C. Malone, who is the first lead singer to successfully combine the look of Elvis Presley and Joey Ramone. I only wish I'd thought of it first.

Steve Palopoli

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From the July 14-21, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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