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Concert Review: MC50/Detroit Cobras

Concert Review: MC50/Detroit Cobras

There is not enough testosterone or amphetamines in the world to fully replicate the moment that Kick Out the Jams so vividly preserved; but even after 50 years, its aftershock remains awesome to behold.

(Photo: Peter Hutchins)

9:30 Club, Washington, DC
09/11/18

I’ve never lived in Detroit; but growing up in Southeast and Mid-Michigan, the Motor City has always felt like a cultural home to me—the same way, I suppose, that New York City must feel to kids from New Jersey, or L.A. to kids from Orange County. There’s no other city in the world that I associate so strongly with live music—a condition of both its genuinely rich musical history and the countless hours I spent in my teens and 20s driving in from Ann Arbor and Lansing for shows. So it was hard not to wish that I was seeing Wayne Kramer’s “MC50” tour, a semicentennial celebration of his seminal proto-punk group the M(otor) C(ity) 5, in Detroit—especially since I still have fond memories of seeing the reunited New York Dolls there in 2004, with a crowd that seemed to include the entire surviving staff of CREEM magazine.

But I’m a long way from Southeast Michigan these days, so I had to settle for Kramer and openers the Detroit Cobras bringing Southeast Michigan to DC. There were, at least, a few people in the audience at the 9:30 Club who looked like they could have written for CREEM, or at least been around for the MC5’s original run: guys with gray ponytails and winged-panther shirts that clearly fit a little more snugly than when they were purchased. Mostly, though, it was dudes—and I do mean dudes—in my demographic: white, male and somewhere on the Gen-X/Old Millennial spectrum. The turnout, unsurprisingly for a Tuesday night, wasn’t exactly overwhelming: I had an easy time snagging a spot up front a few minutes after the start of the opening set.

The choice of the Detroit Cobras as an opener both intrigued and perplexed me: intrigued because, despite having tried my best to be a peripheral scenester in the waning days of the turn-of-the-century Detroit garage punk revival, I never actually managed to see them live; and perplexed because, aside from the obvious geographic connection, they’d never struck me as immediate heirs to the Five’s sweat-soaked, chemically-fueled machismo. The Cobras’ core duo of frontwoman Rachel Nagy and guitarist Mary Ramirez has a natural, slightly loopy chemistry, and the current lineup—including Eddie Baranek from almost-famous Detroit power-poppers the Sights—is loose and energetic; but their amped-up cover versions of vintage rock and soul chestnuts are breezier, sexier and more dance-oriented than anything on Kick out the Jams.

But then, maybe that was part of the point. The MC5, after all, were more than just Kick Out the Jams; I can easily picture the Cobras smoking their way through a version of “Let Me Try” from 1970’s underrated Back in the USA, for example. And in 2018 the woman-led group felt like a welcome corrective to the Five’s chest-beating hypermasculinity—a contrast which Nagy underscored when she instructed the largely male audience to “ask a pretty girl to dance” before the Cobras played their version of Irma Thomas’ “Cry On.” “You’re not going to get many chances with the MC5,” she advised.

If the audience minded the headliners’ inability to kick out the slow jams, however, they didn’t let it on. Kramer, 70 years old this year, took the stage at a run, leading a lineup with Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, Faith No More bassist Billy Gould, Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty and Zen Guerrilla vocalist Marcus Durant, while Herbie Abernathy of hard rockers Valient Thorr did his best approximation of Brother J.C. Crawford’s revolutionary emcee patter from Kick out the Jams. The recreation was fun and crowd-pleasing, but felt a little hollow—particularly after the band launched into opener “Ramblin’ Rose,” Kramer’s age-weathered voice not even attempting to hit the quavering notes he’d reached in 1968.

From there the show proceeded pretty much as expected, with versions of all eight tracks from Kick out the Jams presented in mostly the same order as on the album. Kramer pulled out all of his old tricks: wind-milling, spinning like a downed helicopter, thrusting his hips, convulsing and aiming his star-spangled Stratocaster at the crowd like a machine gun. It was an impressive display, if understandably stiffer than in the Five’s heyday. Durant, for his part, did a credible impression of the group’s late vocalist Rob Tyner, right down to the big hair and oversized shades. At times the performance hewed a bit too close to tribute-band territory—it’s hard to ignore that “MC50” is basically a punk-rock version of Ringo’s All-Starr Band—and parts of the set were probably best left in the late ‘60s: the crowd’s enthusiasm for the latter half of the faux-free jazz odyssey “Starship” in particular felt more polite than genuine.

It was only after the band stopped explicitly trying to recapture the magic of the Grande Ballroom in 1968 that they truly came to life. Kramer’s mid-show acknowledgment of the MC5 members no longer with us—Tyner, guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and bassist Michael Davis—was a moving moment that put into perspective how miraculous it is to see anyone from this legendary group still alive, much less rocking as hard as he is. His direct invocation of the current political moment while introducing “The American Ruse” also felt necessary in a show that, “Motor City is Burning” notwithstanding, was starting to feel oddly apolitical for a band that played over the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and effectively served as the house band for the White Panther Party. Granted, his exhortation to “vote, motherfucker, vote” didn’t have quite the same revolutionary fervor as “burn, motherfucker, burn,” but it was welcome nevertheless.

Then, for a few glorious moments in the set-closing “Looking at You,” we were transported: the band firing on all cylinders, Durant and Abernathy both on their knees trading Tyner-esque howls while Kramer beamed down on them like a proud father. I got a glimpse of what it must have felt like to be in the presence of the honest-to-god motherfucking MC5—the closest I’ll ever come, short of time travel, to that experience. There is not enough testosterone or amphetamines in the world to fully replicate the moment that Kick Out the Jams so vividly preserved; but even after 50 years, its aftershock remains awesome to behold.

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