Tied, True, Tested and Blue
The last time I saw garage rock cu(l)ties the Detroit Cobras, it was at Southpaw in Brooklyn, about 300 yards from my old house. This past Friday the group played Stray Bar in Hudson, which seemed near enough my new home to make another point of attending. When you live in the country, however, everything is relative: this one merited a 70-mile round trip. As I suspected, we weren’t the only ones to make the drive.
The old whaling-and-whoring town of Hudson has been on a well-reported revival these last few years, and as we witnessed back in lower Park Slope in the late 90s, such rejuvenation (aka gentrification) comes in stages: first to open up are the second-hand stores, then the new stores, then come the restaurants, followed (more than they are preceded, interestingly) by the bars until inevitably, once the town becomes a destination in its own right, some of those bars branch into proper nightlife, both for the sake of the tourists and the benefit of the hipper habitués.
As a perfect metaphor for the city’s rejuvenation, Stray Bar sits on the second floor of the old Hudson Opera House, its plate glass windows overseeing the action on Warren Street beneath it. We’ve taken a stroll through the bar a couple of times in daylight and been highly impressed: it’s got high wooden ceilings, decent banquettes, a long lean bar with the requisite stools, I recall seeing a billiard table there by day, I noted a couple of disco balls by night – and though there’s no food, Stray has a fantastic beer and wine list. The combination is simultaneously high-end and homey – no easy feat to pull off.
As such, and given that this was one of the bigger gigs Stray has been able to attract, we didn’t mind the $12 cover charge – though that would buy you at least two support bands in Brooklyn. Then again, in Brooklyn, a glass of wine would cost near enough ten bucks in a plastic cup and chances are the bartender wouldn’t even know what he or she was pouring. At Stray Bar, which is serviced by the excellent Hudson Wine Merchants from further down Warren Street, there are no less than five red wines to choose from by the glass, ranging from a $5 Tempranillo to a $9 Cotes du Rhone. I jumped in on the latter, a Domaine de Montpertuis 2005, figuring I could not go wrong. Such confidence assumes a fresh bottle, however, which this one was most certainly not, but when I stuck my nose in it and made a face, the bartender volunteered to open another bottle before I could even pass judgment. She then offered the largest pour I’ve seen in several months – in a proper wine glass. As a bonus, my wife’s seltzer also came in the same high-end glass. That’s service for you. This girl could make a fortune in New York City with such hands-on attendance.
The Cobras took a while to come on – you’ve got to be wary of those “guaranteed” 10pm slots – but the delay gave us time to talk, admire the surroundings, and served to build anticipation. There were, by my rough guess, around 100 people here to see the Cobras, probably not many less than when I last caught them in Brooklyn. And the crowd was particularly noticeable not just for its passion, but its age: this was one of the few bar gigs I’ve attended recently where I was on the young side of the demographic.
Why? Maybe because garage rock has coursed its vein through Detroit rock music’s lifeblood for 40 years or more; perhaps because the Detroit Cobras play almost nothing but covers that dates its audience back towards the sixties (age as well as enthusiasts!); and also, I suspect, because they don’t tend to make them like this any more.
Rachel Nagy, Mary Ramirez and their rotating cast of male musicians are not, I should note, my very favorite band. And if you merely stuck your head in the bar, early on, when they couldn’t hear a thing in the monitors (which at one point conked out completely), you might have thought they were average to the point of mediocrity. After all, everything about the group is, on the surface, good rather than great, but that goodness is so consistent that the effect is contagious as hell: the Detroit Cobras revel in a no-frills, take-it-or-leave-it, “we love to play rock’n’roll and we hope that it shows” exuberance. And once Nagy could hear her own husky voice, once Mary Ramirez and her fellow guitarist (who I believe to be) Greg Cartwright, drummer Kenny Tudrick and bassist Joey Mazolla got on their grooove, they almost tore down the house. By the end of the set, the applause following each 2-minute garage anthem was enough to intimate four times the crowd. That might be emblematic of small-town gratitude for a big-city band; it might also just have been because we were all having ourselves awhaling and whoring old time.
Highlights? I didn’t take notes, and one of the Cobras’ attractions is their penchant for relative obscurities; I assume many of the sosngs were from their new, fourth album Tied & True. But I did pick up on the old Action single ‘I’ll Keep On Holding On,’ I’d have recognized ‘Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand’ with or without benefit of their myspace page, and we particularly enjoyed ‘Leave My Kitten Alone’ (the old Little Willie John song covered by both the Beatles and Elvis Costello) which sounded all the better for Mary’s meows.
The call for the encore was as loud as I’ve heard in a small club for months. The call for a second encore was just as loud though it didn’t do the job; by then the merch man had turned on his bright lights in an attempt to move CDs the modern way. (I.e. by hand.) On our way out, I stopped to chat with a particularly enthused Nick Hornby-lookalike. He and his girl had traveled two-and-a-half hours each way from New Jersey. Our 40-minute ride back through the mountains was a cruise by comparison. The Detroit Cobras, for whom this was but the third date on what looks like an endless summer tour, attract that kind of loyalty. If it keeps putting on shows like this (and pouring wine like that), so will the Stray Bar. And night-time road trips to Hudson will become ever more common.