In this new millennium, where most bands covered under the broad hood of punk seem content to rehash the styles that have been laid down in decades before—be they leagues of hardcore bands pacified by beer in lieu of an audience over a month of Tuesday night shows, So-Cal pop-punkers plundering their Descendents and Bad Religion Records for melodies or the countless Dischord/Sonic Youth fans still reaching into the same old bag of cacophony and proclaiming the resulting mess “progressive art rock”—it sure is nice when a handful of bands takes a step back to an idealized pre-punk sound in pursuit of a new sound.
Such is the case with the recent phenomenon of punk bands playing soul music—among others, the Bellrays, the Delta 72, the Make Up, and the Dirtbombs. Although the different approaches of these bands give them all distinctly different sounds, the creeping realization that they’re all playing soul music leads the listener to an exciting conclusion: that while all of these bands are introducing a new trick into the tired punk game, they are simultaneously “saving” R&B’s legacy from the shameful last twenty years of Babyfaces and Bobby Browns, elevating the music above the level of mere samples for someone to rap over.
If any of this rant is ringing the school bell for those scholars of rock and roll lost in the mediocrity of today’s music, then Tuesday’s Dirtbombs show will be required attendance.
Detroit’s Dirtbombs, featuring the already legendary garage polymath Mick Collins, have released two albums on In the Red Records. Their first, Horndog Fest, is your typical specimen of Motor City garage punk, but the second, 2001’s Ultraglide in Black, brings Collins (proclaimed by Detroit label In the Red to be “the last black man in rock and roll”) back to his R&B roots and raises the band several tiers above any other in the genre. Ultraglide in Black finds this raucous group blasting through 12 soul covers plus one original and in the process innovating a sort of devolved soul, stripped-down musically with a fuzzy, nearly out-of-tune guitar playing the horn lines, yet maintaining the traditional big-band soul feel with two bass players and two drummers humpin’, bumpin’ and thumpin’ out the rhythm. While this formula sounds simple enough—and on the page it may seem as if any ol’ garage band could play soul music in this manner—on listening to the record, it is quite clear that not just anyone could pull this off. Anyone who isn’t Mick Collins, that is.
For many, Tuesday’s show will surely be a sort of pilgrimage to see the man who has been such a salient force in the garage scene for so long. Collins’s popularity initially stemmed from his work with Detroit blooze-garage outfit the Gories (imagine the Cramps if they had hailed from the Mississippi Delta rather than New York and had covered Willie Dixon instead of the Trashmen). Alas, after three excellent albums (one of which boasts Box Tops/Big Star cult hero Alex Chilton as producer), the Gories split, only to leave Collins free to lend his Midas touch as producer to an amazingly broad array of bands from Epitaph’s all-girl Red Aunts to motorcycle fuzz group the Silencers, and in addition appear as bandleader in at least half a dozen bands.
Like Chilton and crazed svengali icon Kim Fowley, Collins is one of those figures whose genius dawns on you after repeatedly discovering his name on the flipsides of half of your record collection. And as is also the case with these figures, the mystical force and alpha male mojo that accompany appearance by Collins and his Dirtbombs in any town are not to be missed.