The Dirtbombs + The Detroit Cobras

[24 July 2002]

By Jordan Kessler

The Dirtbombs
The Detroit Cobras

Co-headlining a two-night stand at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan, the Detroit Cobras and the Dirtbombs are part of the Detroit rock scene recently brought to public attention by the White Stripes. Both bands appeared on Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit, a compilation of scene bands produced by Jack White. Both play gritty garage rock informed by vintage soul, and both recently released albums featuring little but covers of classic and little-known tunes from the past. But there the similarities end.

In spite of the hype surrounding them, the Detroit Cobras remind me more of a cover band playing in some bar than a group I would pay to see. Almost the most unpleasant thing about watching them was how full of themselves they seemed to be. Lead singer Rachel Nagy applied her gruff voice to songs so short they barely got off the ground. Meanwhile, her band laid down highly derivative greaser rock. Nagy and the group could barely light a fire under prime material like Otis Redding’s “Shout Bamalama” and Solomon Burke’s “Home in Your Heart”, let alone some of the more obscure numbers they covered. Though she acted tough, Nagy came off as just plain mean. “If you tug on her pant leg, I’ll fucking rip your leg off,” she screamed at one fan. How delightful. “Is this fun or what?” asked Nagy at one point. Actually, Rachel, no, it isn’t.

The Dirtbombs, on the other hand, would be as popular as the White Stripes in a just world. Actually, Jack and Meg White are basically followers of Dirtbombs leader Mick Collins, the man behind the Detroit rock renaissance. Backing Collins in the Dirtbombs is an all-star cast of Detroit rockers: Thomas Jackson Potter and Jim Diamond on bass, plus drummers Ben Blackwell and Pat Pantano.

A local magazine correctly explained that the Dirtbombs “flattened” this venue the last time they played there. Though their set was similar to the one they played that night, I had nearly as much fun watching them in July as I had seeing them in March.

The name of this band is apt, for the Dirtbombs have a deliciously dirty, heavy sound, and on stage, they just detonate, like a turbocharged sports car flying out of the plant and onto the road. Their rhythmic ferocity makes dancing mandatory. I know of no other group that features two drummers, each with a full kit, and two bassists, all playing together onstage at once. One part Ron Ashton of the Stooges and one part Robert White of the Funk Brothers, the riffing of Collins and Potter reminded me of that question George Clinton used to answer so well: “Who says a funk band can’t play rock?” Warm, soulful vocals by Collins, which brought Hendrix to mind, ably surfed atop this massive wave of sound.

Nearly all of the Dirtbombs’ songs were memorable, whether originals from their first album or covers from their latest. Collins sang “Underdog” and “Ode to a Black Man”, tunes by two other black men fronting multiracial rock bands, Sly Stone and Phil Lynott. “Chains of Love”, by forgotten Detroit deep soul man J.J. Barnes, became a speedy, metallic romp, and “Do You See My Love (For You Growing)”, popularized by Motown hitmaker Junior Walker, sounded like a funky mix between “Honky Tonk Women” and the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her”. Jim Diamond, engineer for the White Stripes and Ghetto Recorders studio owner, took the vocal duties on the hilarious “I’m Through With White Girls”, and the band even busted out a sample-ready, hip-hop groove on one tune, “Granny’s Little Chicken”.

Listening to the Dirtbombs, I understand why they call it Detroit Rock City. These guys are ready for star time. Hopefully, they will get the attention they deserve.

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