The Detroit Cobras: “Mean Man”
Usually when one thinks of singers and bands who primarily perform other people’s music rather than write their own, it tends to bring to mind decades worth of crooners, jazz and blues singers, bar bands, and Rod Stewart (in his current incarnation, at any rate). And there are certainly many among those who do what they do well. However, there are relatively few performers in rock music who have managed to rise to fame playing mostly other people’s material — offhand, I can think of Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, and George Thorogood, though obviously I’m forgetting a few. But among modern-day bands, the one band that has most transcended the term “cover band” and gone far beyond the image of a moderately talented (at best) group of musicians slogging their way through the good ol’ classic-rock standbys on a weekday night is The Detroit Cobras. Over the course of four albums (so far) since 1998, the Cobras have dug up great lost singles from the dustbins of rock, soul, and R&B, polished them up, and made them entirely their own.
Listening to one of their records, you wouldn’t guess that they were playing covers — they have a way of putting an energy into the songs that most bands simply can’t quite muster for other people’s material. The Beatles were capable of this, on songs like “Twist and Shout” or “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” but the Detroit Cobras make it their way of life. They have a great knack for finding great songs that you probably haven’t heard and rescuing them from obscurity. If you go back and track down the original versions of these songs, although they’re often great in their own way, you’ll find that the Cobras have improved upon most of them and injected a power in them that wasn’t present before. Lead singer Rachel Nagy has an incredibly powerful voice that is most certainly the secret to their success — she belts out the songs like they’ve never been sung before. It certainly helps that recording technology is a lot better than it used to be, as the old versions are often diminished by poor sound quality, but all other things being equal, the Detroit Cobras play the versions that I’d want to hear most, given the choice.
Although there are many great songs on their albums that I could have chosen to focus on, today I’m going with “Mean Man,” from their 2005 album, Baby. It’s a cover of a 1968 song written by the great Allen Toussaint and performed originally by Betty Harris. It’s one of the Detroit Cobras’ most fully realized and best-arranged covers, from the guitar attack through Nagy’s tough/vulnerable vocal presence: she can admit to being weak enough to fall for a guy who has a tendency to ignore her and doesn’t really deserve her love, but she never truly sounds weak in the process, like she knows what she’s doing and just might be using him as much as he’s using her. “Mean Man” is a great, rocking tune on which the Detroit Cobras take control of the message and turn it on its head by simply playing the heck out of it. And trust me, if you think they do it well here, there are four albums worth of great songs that you will never think of as simply cover songs.