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Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008

The Detroit Cobras @ Mad Planet

Sept. 18, 2008

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  From their inception, the Detroit Cobras were better than the average soul and R&B cover band. In addition to playing other artists' music, they've performed a public service by digging deep into the back catalogs of '60s soul labels like Minit and Stax to unearth and revisit forgotten classics, introducing them to newer generations of audiences. During the past decade, the Cobras have weathered a revolving door of personnel changes in the rhythm section, with lead singer Rachel Nagy and guitarist Maribel Restrepo remaining at the core of the lineup.

  Nagy's central role to the band's longevity is evident on the Cobras' four albums. Vocally, she's a ringer for Crescent City soul queen Irma Thomas mixed with Bonnie Bramlett's blue-eyed Ikette, a combination that is equal parts street-smart glamour and down-home charm, born in a back alley and raised in a church choir.

  On Thursday night, however, Nagy was less an impassioned and emotive vocalist than a bored soul impersonator. Taking the stage, she sardonically wondered aloud about where she was, venturing to guess she was standing in Columbus. Nagy mouthed and motioned her way through "My Baby Loves the Secret Agent," "Cha Cha Twist" and "I'll Keep Holding On," rolling her eyes aloft more than a few times and barely masking disinterest or distraction.

  If Nagy slumped her way through the first half of the Cobras' set, she swaggered her way through the second. Punctuating her performance with shots of whiskey and fart jokes, Nagy seemed out to prove that some artists don't mature, they just get older.

  Invigorated by an audible belch that garnered cheers from enthralled men in the audience, Nagy managed to catch up to the rest of the Cobras' raucous momentum, belting out "Bad Girl," "Midnight Blues" and a hip-shaking rendition of Allen Toussaint's "Mean Man," a song Betty Harris recorded for Toussaint's Sansu records in 1968. Unfortunately, by the time Nagy warmed up, the set was nearly over.

  Perhaps Nagy's lack of enthusiasm can be attributed to the Cobras' early anticipation of the '60s soul revival. After all, Nagy had a 10-year head start on the success of Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse, but she's squandering the glamour of the divas she emulates with a stale bad-girl attitude. I'm willing to give Nagy the benefit of the doubt for one halfhearted performance, but after a decade of singing the same old songs for the same audiences in another indistinguishable notch on the Rust Belt, maybe it's time to let that Southern soul rest in peace, or for Nagy to pass the baton-without the gas.