There are maybe three rock bands that won’t die: the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead and NRBQ, whose eponymous first album has just been reissued.

NRB-Who?

The Stones, who everyone knows, continue as a zombie band—the key members alive and kicking but very nearly the walking dead. The Dead are all alive except for the one that counts the most (and the keyboard players), and Jerry Garcia has been replaced by so many near-Jerrys over the years that the band’s “final concerts” with Phish’s Trey Anastasio as “Jerry” gave way within months to yet another version of “Dead and Company” with John Mayer playing “Jerry.” This is a band that is its own cover band.

Then there is NRBQ, still actually rocking. Founded in 1966 (four years after the Stones, one year after the Dead), it continues today in a way more authentic than its peers. The original line-up, and the almost-original line-up featured on NRBQ, released in 1969, barely lasted a few years. And while there was a core line-up that lasted from 1974 to 1993, there have been 16 members of the “New Rhythm & Blues Quintet” (later “Quartet”) across 51 years. Only one member, keyboardist and singer Terry Adams, has been in all of them.

But darn it if the ethic and sound of the band hasn’t been fairly stable for all the change. And it all started with NRBQ, which is just as weird as NRBQ would be through all the years, and almost as joyful.

The truth is, NRBQ would make much better records than their debut, but with just a few exceptions all the NRBQ albums were kind of spotty—arguably by design. NRBQ wrote Beatle-esque pop tunes, they played jazz, they got into avant-garde performance art, they dabbled in blues/rockabilly/zydeco/more, they were messy and they were sweet as pie. No album of theirs was a coherent masterpiece. They were all joyful festivals of variety.

NRBQ, inevitably, features some straight rockers, kick-ass blues, tunes that sound bar-band ready to roll. “Mama Get Down Those Rock and Roll Shoes” is an original that answers the old Chuck Willis tune, “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes,” and it features the same kind of Little Richard rock piano, in addition to Terry Adams’s trademark clavinet woven into the groove of the rhythm section. Similarly, the album opener is Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody,” a simple guitar rave up that NRBQ makes its own because of the rubbery feeling that Adams gets as that clav interacts with Joey Spampinato’s active, bouncing bass.

Two other tracks are pop rockers with a Liverpudian vibe. Spampinato’s “You Can’t Hide” is a fast tune with Steve Ferguson’s guitar out front and Spampinato’s pleasing voice, making this the first in a string of NRBQ tunes that would set a template for “power pop” in the decades to come. “Stomp” is built around driving rock groove too, but it tacks on a bridge section that has that high ‘60s sound, with a stack of harmonized vocals. If the guys behind Fountains of Wayne haven’t listened to these tunes in heavy rotation, well, they should.

Beyond these four, things are gloriously strange: a pungent mash-up of country and folk and jazz as played by a ‘60s rock group that had more than a little in common with Frank Zappa. NRBQ were always jazz fans, but obliquely. “Rocket #9” is a tune by Sun Ra, a Philadelphia swing pianist who remade himself as an early avant-garde Afro-futurist from, he claimed, Saturn. The band introduces it with a full minute of penny whistle, percussion, and free piano, and then it rocks on the chant of “Rocket #9, take for the planet, to the planet, of Venus!” A menacing guitar line plays partly in unison with Donn Adams trombone, which solos here and on a couple of other tracks. (Because, you know, rock could use more trombone. Or at least NRBQ has always seen it that way.) “Stay with We,” written by Terry Adams, begins with chords pulled straight from Thelonious Monk, then becomes a duet for piano and vocalist Frank Gadler (who departed the band after a few years) with the rhythm section joining them for a melody that is straight from Tin Pan Alley. Soon the band is singing a “La la-la la-la” chorus, followed by a straight up jazz piano solo for Adams. “Ida” is a melody by jazz composer Carla Bley, but the boys play it here as an off-kilter rock ballad. It is weirdly wonderful.

The country stuff is also off-kilter fine. “Kentucky Slop Song” is full of absurd lyrics (“Snot boogers are in my nose, got jammed in between my toes/ Let’s go outside, come inside, go bowling on a Friday night!”) set to a lazy country groove for piano, punctuated by snappy interludes that feature trombone and harmonized guitar. Great slide guitar solo too and a crazy out-jam with harmonica, like rock ’n’ roll Dixieland. “Hey, Baby” is a legitimate country tune by Bruce Channel that NRBQ plays with a loose kind backbeat swing. Where else does clavinet sound right at home in the country genre? “C’mon If You’re Comin’” is an acoustic ditty off someone’s back porch that was written by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee: guitar and harmonica, that’s it. “Liza Jane” is nothing but Terry singing, tapping his foot, and playing his harmonica. Oh, and a dog barking the whole time in the background… loudly.

There are three more introspective tunes. “Hymn Number 5” is an off-beat break-up song that uses toy piano in conversation with steel-stringed guitar. “Fergie’s Prayer” has a finger-picked charm, just guitar, vocal and distorted organ. “I Didn’t Know Myself” features Steve Ferguson’s vocals and guitar, accompanied by Terry’s clav with the band coming in toward the end. Ferguson wouldn’t last long with NRBQ either, but you can hear on this track how he fit into the idea at its start.

Ultimately, NRBQ would pare down to a quartet, losing Ferguson and Gatler, then picking up guitarist Al Anderson and trading original drummer Tom Staley for Tom Ardolino. They would keep making oddball records, though Columbia (of course and inevitably) dropped them for their plain-as-day lack of commercial potential. Everywhere they went, they played small-ish rooms, they accumulated fans who love Spampinato’s gorgeous pop tunes, Adams’s infectious songs and keys and the rock-a-crazy power of the whole band as a whole. They went whatever direction they felt—for example, there is their cover of the theme to the TV show “Bonanza”—and they’re still doing it today, wonderfully and originally and without having to play “Satisfaction” to get a geriatric crowd to its feet.

Long live NRBQ and its reason for keeping on.

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One Comment

  1. Charlie Divers

    January 23, 2020 at 5:29 am

    I’ll disagree with one statement, that no NRBQ album was a coherent masterpiece. Every song on “At Yankee Stadium” is a winner. The only slightly questionable tune may be “Talk to Me” with it’s dissonant keyboard solo that may not have appealed to the average listener’s ear, but every other tune is a classic.

    Reply

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