My 40s have become something of an awakening for me as I’ve made a focused effort to seek out music I’ve missed out on – either genuinely or through foolish preconceptions as to its validity – and listen. The music of Afrobeat pioneer and legend Fela Kuti comes immediately to mind as an example of what I’d foolishly missed out on during my earlier years. Then again, perhaps I needed to have gone through those years and phases – heavy and hair metal got me through high school, people – to arrive at a point in my life where I could appreciate something new and different.
New and different, by the way, is an excellent description of the music I’ve been listening to lately, namely NRBQ’s new release from Omnivore Records, High Noon: A 50-Year Retrospective.
Okay, I’ll admit that the “new” part of that might be a stretch, as the title plainly lets you know that this is a band that’s been around in various formations for 50 years. But if you’ve ever given NRBQ a listen then you’ll have to admit that I’m right on the money with “different.” The 106 songs spread out across the five CDs of this release are over six hours of music that defies genre or expectations. When you can press “shuffle” and then “play” and end up with a sugary-sweet pop song, followed by jazz, followed by rockabilly, followed by country fresh from the mountains, etc., you can see where this band might be a little different from the rest of the crowd.
NRBQ – the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet – began at the tail end of 1965 in the home of brothers Terry and Donn Adams, but first appeared onstage in 1966. Before then, though, along with drummer Charlie Craig, they made home recordings of those in-home rehearsals. According to Wikipedia, the first known reference to the band’s name can be heard on one of those recordings, with Donn announcing “Here they are, the New Rhythm and Blues Quintet!” as though presenting them to an audience at a live concert. When the band settled into the lineup of keyboardist Terry Adams, bassist Joey Spampinato, drummer Tom Staley, and guitarist Steve Ferguson, the quintet became a quartet.
While that original lineup didn’t stay in place for long – the first three years alone saw a good many shifts in lineup – the name stuck and the band itself kept recording and touring (and touring). Those live shows more than anything else are the reason the band grew a fan base large enough to support them in whatever combination of musicians might be on stage. Unlike your typical live band – especially one with a long recording career – NRBQ famously never works with a set list. While you may be safe in guessing what you’re going to get if, for instance, you attend a Pearl Jam concert or (beneficent wallet be willing) a Rolling Stones concert, with NRBQ the night’s songs are going to be based on the general mood the musicians feel from the crowd plus whatever audience requests they acknowledge. I’m going to imagine it’s like the best bar-band karaoke concert ever – where the band plays and actually sings whatever song pops into its head.
That’s not a bad reason to fall in love with a band.
My own awakening to NRBQ through the release of High Noon shows that the band was just as conscientious in reasoning out how their body of music is presented on these discs as they are when considering what will be presented in concert: seemingly at random, but with a keen eye for the mood of the audience. In this case, with the audience being (hopefully) a mixture of lifelong fans but also people such as myself who are hoping to discover the band for the first time, the band begins not at the beginning as you might expect but with its latest recordings. 2015’s “Love in Outer Space,” the opening track, is as perfect an introduction as you could hope for, because after listening to this (dare I say) somewhat spacey Sun Ra composition you can definitely get a sense of the kind of band NRBQ has grown into.
They are every bit as adventurous as they were as a young bunch of guys playing around at the Adams home some 51 years ago, even though Terry Adams stands alone as the only band member spanning the timeline from then to now. How he’s been able to hang on to the energy and charming irreverence that permeates this box of collected performances (both studio and live in concert) is a testament to his continued enthusiasm and love of music.
That energy carries through from the opening notes of “Love in Outer Space” through the nearly Captain Beefheart-esque perfection of “Rocket Number 9,” the Grand Ol’ Opry swing of country standards such as “Get Rhythm” and “This Old House,” the awesomeness of Captain Lou Albano’s “Captain Lou,” the jazzy wonderfulness that is “Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard,” and on and on and on across 106 wonderful tracks.
Not all of them are going to be among your favorites or my favorites, but much like the individual pixels don’t give you the complete picture on your television screen, when they are all dancing across your retinas at the same time it’s a different story. When you give these songs and this band the opportunity to dance across your eardrums I’m confident you’ll grow to love NRBQ as much as I have.
It’s High Noon in America, people!