NRBQ: Turn On, Tune In

The latest NRBQ lineup tears it up live in the studio

More than fifty years from its founding, NRBQ is as much an ethos as it is a band. Rebuilt by founding member Terry Adams after a seven-year hiatus, the current lineup carries on the earlier group’s unique blend of rock, pop, rockabilly, boogie-woogie, jazz, blues and other American music forms, both in the studio and, as was the original band’s hallmark, on stage. Performing for SiriusXM in 2015 and New Jersey’s WFMU in 2017, the band’s latest lineup (which added drummer John Perrin in 2015) works through a typically diverse and impromptu set that leans heavily on material penned by Adams. The set list sidesteps classic ‘Q material written by former bassist Joey Spampinato and guitarist Al Anderson, but does reach back to the group’s early days, and stretches out with the sort of brilliantly selected covers the band is known for.

Making up the setlist in the moment has long been Adams’ job, and the nightly change in the band’s live performances has kept NRBQ from devolving into a nostalgic set of charts. The opening cover of Goffin & King’s “Don’t Ever Change” is emblematic of NRBQ’s quirky reach, as they tackle (apparently for the first time in this very performance) an obscure UK hit for the post-Buddy Holly Crickets. Perhaps they keyed off of the Beatles 1963 cover or Brinsley Schwarz’s version a decade later, but its lead harmony and polite drum rolls remain as charming today as they were in 1962. The set’s other covers aren’t as obscure, though they’re just as interesting. The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” features bassist Casey McDonough reprising the falsetto vocal he sang on Brian Wilson’s fiftieth anniversary tour of Pet Sounds, Johnny & The Hurricanes’ 1959 instrumental hit “Red River Rock” features drummer John Perrin on lead organ, and Jimmie Driftwood’s “The Wilderness Road” includes a harmonica solo that’s as high and lonesome as the song’s lyrics.

Closer to home, the band resurrects favorites and obscurities from friends, family and former members. Guitarist Scott Ligon’s first recorded his older brother Chris’ twee “Florida” in 2005, and Chris recorded the song again in 2011 with his group the Flat Five. The harmony lead vocal is filled with yearning for America’s vacation land and a wordless hook of vocal jazz syllables. Terry Adams’ brother Donn is represented by the bombastic, incredibly rare Dickens’ B-side “Don’t Talk About My Music,” a song whose NRBQ story has to be read to be believed. Reaching back to the band’s early days, Steve Ferguson’s “Step Aside” recalls the group’s 1970 outing with rockabilly legend Carl Perkins, Terry Adams’ “Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard” provides a prog-rock tribute to the Three Stooges, a trio of tunes from 1977’s All Hopped Up includes the sweet “It Feels Good,” and the WFMU show closes with Adams’ ode to Southern comfort food, “RC Cola and a Moon Pie.”

More recent releases are represented by material from Adams’ solo albums, and the resurrected group’s albums Keep This Love Goin’ and Brass Tacks. Long-time WFMU DJ Bob Brainen provide liner and song notes, and the CD and LP include a professionally shot DVD of the WFMU performance. Those still lamenting the disbanding of the classic lineup of Adams, Anderson, Ardolino and Spampinato, may find it sacreligious for this new quartet to have adopted the NRBQ name, but they hold the torch high, and carry on the marriage of studied musicianship and musical whimsicality that’s long defined the band. Their new music plays well with the deep catalog entries, and the covers are lovingly selected and deftly executed. There are few bands that have been this fun for this long, and the latest lineup definitely keeps the love goin’. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

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