This weekend I’ll mostly be listening to….NRBQ April 28, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....
A very welcome guest TWIMBLT from anarchaeologist…
I can’t lie and say I’ve been up in the bedroom listening to NRBQ since their formation in Louisville KY in 1967; I won’t even say I was aware of the band over the period of their best-known line-up between ’74 and ’94. No, this is another of those bands I’d never come across before, but that’s not to say I hadn’t heard their music ex situ. For NRBQ have been featured several times on the Simpsons and can be heard on Hal Wilner’s ‘Stay Awake’ Disney tribute murdering Whistle While You Work. Their music has also cropped up over the years as an unrecognisable Yo La Tengo cover (or two) and CLR hipsters might well know them through the recordings of She & Him.
For the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet are seemingly a ‘musician’s band’, much beloved of among others YLT, Keef and indeed the Replacements, who also featured in this column a few weeks ago. I heard them through the good offices of Thomas Meinecke, from another acronymic band featured here in 2010. And indeed it seems NRBQ were not unsurprisingly covered by FSK, although it could well be argued that the Munich band, as is their wont, were actually covering NRBQ’s own cover of Santo and Johnny’s 1959 pedal-steel hit Sleep Walk.
The band fell in around keyboardist Terry Adams, the best line-up featuring the late Tom Ardolino on drums, Joey Spampinato on bass and Al Anderson on guitar. They were on occasion joined on stage by their manager, a former professional wrestler, the late Captain Lou Albano, who also looked after the doubtless more profitable business arrangements of Cyndi Lauper. It could and has been said, that NRBQ have to be the best bar band in the world and are thus, by definition, doomed to penurious obscurity. If this prejudices what you’re about to listen to, remember, they must be the only group to have appeared on the bills of the Grand Ole Opry, the Berlin Jazz Festival and the New York Folk Festival (and all in the same year). Back in the new mainstream they were one of the several opening acts on the US leg of REM’s break-through ‘Green’ tour in ’89 (along with the likes of the Go Betweens, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, Throwing Muses and the Indigo Girls).
The clips below can only suggest that they must have been a brilliant live experience in their ‘80s heyday. They often distained the concept of the set list, preferring a greatest hits package and accepting random cover requests from the audience. The greatest hits package wouldn’t have taken that long; the band has had a single entry on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching No. 70 in 1974. Get That Gasoline Blues is posted on youtube by an Italian fan who links the song to the energy crisis and America’s nostalgia for cheap gas. I’ve been told it’s been covered by Canvey Island refinery rockers Dr. Feelgood and indeed if it wasn’t, it should’ve been. Dummy should have been a contender in 2004 and the video is well worth a look. Elsewhere, the band’s bemusement with the business is demonstrated to good effect as a Virgin Records executive tries to sell a video involving some charmingly playful interaction on the part of the band, albeit with some rather cute puppies.
A lot of the material posted on youtube concentrates on the more traditionally good time r’n’b elements of their music, a function of the appetite for this type of thing in middle America, or at least that section of the population who brought along video cameras to gigs in the ‘90s. As a consequence, there’s little enough material available from their earlier shows or indeed much other stuff showcasing the other elements of their glorious music. The quality of the footage is atrocious to our eyes. For if the bar room blues are the attacking force of their scattergun sonic assault, the band demonstrates a promiscuous capacity to extend their reach into jazz and Be Bop, Beach Boys’ pop, southern white soul and well into the punkabilly end of the r’n’b spectrum. That the band were often accompanied by the Whole Wheat Horns beefed up the sound, building to a maelstrom of a show.
Terry Adams can sound like Monk on occasions, his live playing most obviously influenced by Jerry Lee with undercurrents of a jazz background adding that extra dimension to his keyboards. As one of three writers in the band, he took most of the lead vocals, along of course with Anderson and Spampinato and the occasional comic turn by Ardolino, who would take up and vocalise over any of the other instruments after much persuasion from the rest of the band. Spampinato’s rendition of I Love Her, She Loves Me has, at least once, brought this writer to tears.
The rhythm section could and would switch from a motronic Sun Ra raga to a mid-Beatles bop on the off beat. Spampinato, who was married to country maverick Skeeter Davis (well due a moment of glory on the CLR?), played sideman to Keef on both his solo debut ‘Talk Is Cheap’ and on the Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll! bash for Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday. His electric bass can mostly sound like a stand-up slap, quite a feat when you look at the energy of the performances. Ardolino, who died in January, would often play with four sticks gaffa-taped onto his hands. His drumming style was unconventional and funky, and can possibly be characterised by a loud, bass bin-worrying ‘thwack’. Ardolino was an enthusiastic collector and producer of sound-poems, essentially vanity projects where lyricists could, for a fee, have their music written and professionally performed. This has become a sonic outsider art, one which encompasses both the genuinely bizarre and the profoundly poignant, but all of the songs being special in their own right.
Anderson is better known these days as a Nashville songwriter and session player and penned many of the country songs that made it into popular consciousness throughout the ‘90s including Tim McGraw’s The Cowboy in Me and Ty England’s No. 3 hit in 1995, Should’ve Asked her Faster, songs you can hear preformed every weekend in small pubs in south Donegal. LeAnn Rimes got to No. 6 in the US country charts and made it to No. 23 in the Hot 100 in ’99 with Big Deal, a song Anderson co-wrote with Jeffrey Steele of Boy Howdy (of whom I know absolutely nothing). Big Al was the first to jump ship after a New Year’s Eve gig in NYC in 1993, his place taken by Joey’s brother Johnny from the Incredible Casuals. Anderson’s playing is both loose and focused on the job in hand (according to whatever style that job might demand) but it’s grounded on country-style finger picking with blasts of Stax and the echoes of free jazz ever present, a guitar tradition carried on by the likes of Eugene Chadbourne and Thurston Moore. Big Al, as you’d imagine, plays Fender guitars (a Telecaster and a pimped-up 1956 Esquire with NRBQ).
The band’s very eclecticism and their focus on interminable, though financially necessary gigging resulted in a poor relationship with the majors, and they were never to see the record sales which would surely have put them at the forefront of the global roots revival in the ‘90s. Originally signed to Columbia, their first album ‘NRBQ’ didn’t do the business and the record company vainly set the band up with Carl Perkins for their second attempt, ‘Boppin’ the Blues’ (1970). They were dropped by Columbia before they could finish their third album.
‘At Yankee Stadium’ their sixth studio album is worth getting hold of. The cover has a long shot of the back corner terracing of the old stadium, which, if examined carefully will also reveal the band as tiny specks in the front row beside the dugout. Released in 1978 on Mercury Records, it was actually recorded in Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Studios outside Woodstock. The album is full of good, even great songs (with the bare minimum of Sun Ra abstractions and comedy numbers) but was possibly drowned in the spring tide of the new wave.
The band continued to tour the college circuit, where the punk wars had been well lost, leaving nonetheless an audience open to an alternative ‘alternative’ old fashioned rock’n’roll. To a certain extent, the stage show suggests the band themselves didn’t take themselves too seriously and despite the musicianship and virtuosity of the individuals concerned, they remain more celebrated as members of NRBQ than they do in the other areas of music that they comfortably occupy. But the years on the road were also taking their toll and by the mid ’90s with the departure of Big Al and despite the continuing popularity of big hair, things just mightn’t have been the same any more.
In ’94 Terry Adams was diagnosed with throat cancer and went off the road for a while. The band continued as Baby Marconi where Adams, on his recovery, would tour with Japanese rockabillys the Hot Shots. Maintaining a connection with cartoon culture, all the members of NRBQ contributed to the 1995 SpongeBob Squarepants album, ‘The Best Day Ever’, where they worked alongside Brian Wilson, Tommy Ramone and Flaco Jiménez. In ’97 Adams went on the road again with the Terry Adams Rock & Roll Quartet, which last year released an lp ‘Keep This Love Goin’’, perhaps controversially under the NRBQ moniker (although Tommy Ardolino sat behind the drums on a few songs). A 2004 reunion performance was followed by a few gigs in 2007 but with Tommy’s passing, we may never see their like again.
Here Comes Terry (the usual gig opener)
Too Much (Elvis cover, 1998)
I Want You to Feel Good Too (with the Whole Wheat Horns, early 1980s)
I Want You to Feel Good Too (1989)
And for the real fans…
Saturday Night with Connie Chung (with record boss meeting)
God Bless Tommy Ardolino! 1955-2012 tribute on Youtube