THE BEST BAND YOU’VE (PROBABLY) NEVER HEARD.
*channeling Sophia on The Golden Girls*
Picture it: Pekin, Indiana, 1989. (The town where I attended 5th through 12th grades.)
I’m up late, watching a show on NBC called Michelob Sunday Night. The show, if you never saw it, was sort of like Lucky Charms, if all you had was the marshmallows. Except, in this metaphor, Lucky Charms is Saturday Night Live, and the marshmallows are the musical guests.
At the point that I was enjoying the program, sax man David Sanborn was the host, and would occasionally sit in with the guests as they were performing. (I particularly remember an episode featuring Screamin’ Jay Hawkins doing his classic “I Put a Spell on You” in full voodoo getup, and Sanborn ripping off the most amazingly appropriately greasy sax solo, and thinking to myself, I didn’t even know he had it IN him.) Jools Holland of Squeeze would also do some hosting, and contribute keyboards for the guests on occasion as well.
Mom was working overnights at a hospital, so I wasn’t going to be interrupting her sleep. I went upstairs to her bedroom, the one room in the house that could handle a VCR, as the downstairs console TV couldn’t quite deal with modern electronics so gracefully. (My habit was to tape the shows on VHS, rewatch and sometimes dub some of the greater performances to a cassette tape for later listening.) In the episode I saw this night, Sanborn introduced a band I’d read about for years, but had never had the chance to hear. Those pre-internet days meant that you couldn’t sample music so easily, not with radio in a contracted state, and not taking a lot of risks, and no retailer within a half-hour selling relatively unknown artists, anyway.
On this night, David Sanborn introduced NRBQ (the acronym, depending on the era, stood for New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, or Quintet, usually the former), a band that I knew had a member and former member from Louisville. And then, he basically got out of the way and let them get to it.
What happened next was one of the most transcendent experiences I’ve ever had, watching one of the greatest live performances take place in front of me. The guitarist, singing the song, was stoutly immobile, but playing the hell out of his axe. The drummer swung forcefully, not an easy combination to pull off. The bassist was sedate but dexterous. And the keyboardist, playing a clavinet (the instrumental texture you’d recognize from Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”) was…well, words fail me. He was just…OUT THERE. I would figure out eventually that “out there” was par for the course.
It was an astonishingly well-done balancing act between the four. The music was rock, certainly, and some of the best-played my ears had taken in, but it touched on blues, had a jazzy undercurrent, maybe a touch of twentieth-century classical or avant-jazz in the pianist’s rather bizarre chording, and when the guitarist hit his solo, it took obvious influence from country but echoed the choked, rhythm/lead style of Steve Cropper (of Booker T. and the MG’s). And, although he didn’t look like he’d shred, HE DID.
I was hooked, and had to hear more of this stuff. In short order, I picked up the band’s latest album, Wild Weekend (a one-off for Virgin Records), and grabbed a CD-reissue-with-extra-tracks of their 1978 album Kick Me Hard. The newest one was an easy go for me, with the band in a more pop mode, without succumbing to all the conventions of pop. The older one was a bit trickier, only because I hadn’t fully immersed in all of the wonders of their work…but my ears got accustomed to it soon enough.
What follows in this link is the video from that performance, that night. It is a MINDBLOWER for me, even now.
[youtube id=”0cfpDUO3m5w” width=”620″ height=”360″]
In retrospect, I can tell you a little more about the band from this era. For many fans, this was “the classic lineup” of NRBQ, which would only be together for another five or six years. The guitarist was Al Anderson, now big noise in Nashville as a songwriter. (His departure ended the “classic” lineup of the band.) The drummer, Tom Ardolino, is sadly no longer of this world, having passed on in January 2012. His entrée in the group in 1974 was the classic fairy tale of a fan joining his favorite band. Bassist Joey Spampinato, who had been in the band since its 1967 inception, was Keith Richards’ first call in the late 1980s for the bass chair in the Chuck Berry documentary film Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll (one of his other major claims to fame, for the uninitiated, is that he was married to Skeeter Davis, the singer of oldies favorite “The End of the World”). And as for that piano player, Terry Adams…he was another co-founder of NRBQ, and was from Louisville, so I always had a little peripheral hometown pride that a guy schooled in everything from Sun Ra to Thelonious Monk to Jerry Lee Lewis and back was from our region.
About a decade or so after this television appearance, I finally got to see these guys when they came through Bloomington, Indiana, at a small club. Still one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, but the memory that sticks out was at the end of the show…the club was so small that when they exited the stage, they came through the audience. Terry Adams, piano legend, happened to walk right past me, and I said something to the effect of being a big fan and that I was glad they came to Bloomington.
Terry looked me right in the eye. And then he Pillsbury Doughboyed me. Which is to say that he stuck his index finger out, poked me in the stomach, and said “BOOP!” And then walked out into the night.
I still can’t quite decide if it’s the most awesome thing that’s ever happened to me with a favorite performer, or the most creepy. I lean towards awesome.
Here’s my pocket catalog of album suggestions for the uninitiated into the wild, wonderful world of NRBQ:
The anthology Peek-a-Boo is a great starter kit. Two CDs, about 100 minutes or so, and covering more of the band’s pop/rock sensibility. It handles roughly a two-decade period for the band, most of it classic lineup material, taken from multiple record labels. There are one or two rarities – or were, for the time of release. For those who aren’t sure about whether or not they would get into the band, it also includes their original versions of songs that would later be covered by others, including a couple of songs made popular by Bonnie Raitt.
If a two-disc set seems a little steep, you might find Wild Weekend rewarding, and it leans into their pop muse a little more. It also has the greatest rewrite of a rock instrumental ever, that being the title track. John Sebastian guests on a song or two.
The self-titled album from 1999, as well as the mid-1990s album Message for the Mess Age, are both good overall samplers of what this band is all about, plus neither duplicates the songlist from Peek-a-Boo, as they were released after that anthology. Both have a healthy helping of great songwriting and performance, and the band’s sense of humor is also well displayed (with “Housekeeping” on NRBQ and “Girl Scout Cookies” on Message… being the prime examples).
The band’s live albums are all worth a spin, but props in particular go to a pair released in 1987/88, from the same series of shows. God Bless Us All includes “Crazy Like a Fox” as the opener in another great concert performance, and it’s by-and-large a good recording of a typical night with the ‘Q, and its sequel, Diggin’ Uncle Q, includes excerpts from three different shows, but far from being a leftovers-and-unreleaseds collection, it holds up as another great live album in its own right. (In fact, some of the performances were taken from a show where the band was unannounced, booked on an off-night at a venue because their original choice of playing habitat had burned down to the ground the day before, a case where a relatively unknown band had to sell themselves to an audience that might NOT quite have been prepared for it.) Taken as one, it’s around 100 minutes of NRBQ very much in the zone.
After those, you’ve can pick from anything…it’s all good, but you will have to expect that there will be a wide variety of possibility on display, and it can sometimes read as erratic if you’re not prepared. (To wit: Kick Me Hard is a great album, but it contains a few home recordings direct to two-track, a couple of live on-the-fly covers and a few interesting deviations that you may not return to as much. Great, but sometimes tricky listening.)
Happy listening and discovery. I envy you. (And if you knew these guys already, what are you waiting for? Go crack those albums open and enjoy ’em again.)
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