“NRBQ: Long Live the Q”

April 28, 2010 at 9:07 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

NRBQ is a good-time rock ‘n’ roll band. NRBQ is a Beatlesque pop band. NRBQ is a wacky novelty act. NRBQ is a Sun-Ra-inspired discordant, free jazz band. NRBQ is a roots-rockin’ bar band combo. NRBQ is a goofy comedy act. NRBQ is a serious musicians’ band.

Wait, which one is it? The answer is: all of the above.

NRBQ is, simply put, one of the all-time great, eclectic rock ‘n’ roll bands – masters of every style and genre of music, but never happy settling for just one. Ask any number of fellow musicians, such as Bonnie Raitt or Dave Edmunds, both who have covered the Q’s songs over the years, just how special and unique the Q is. They have been entertaining audiences and record buyers (including myself) for over forty years now, and they have never had one single Top 40 hit in their career – though in an alternate universe they have had several.

Every time I hear “Ridin’ in My Car,” I am instantly transported back to being 7 years old again, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ 1972 white Plymouth Duster, on some drive through the country, listening to some long-forgotten AM station (probably WWCO). I didn’t know at the time that I was listening to Big Al Anderson and the Q. I had no idea it was their song until many years later. But unwittingly, from that moment on, I was a lifelong Q fan.

There’s an old adage about them that goes, “If you don’t like NRBQ, then you simply haven’t heard them yet.” That pretty much sums it up. They are sometimes referred to as “the world’s greatest bar band,” but they are so much more than that. This is a band, for which the term “eclectic” was invented. One minute they are tearin’ the roof off the sucka with some barnstorming rock ‘n’ roll, the next minute they are jamming on some ridiculous novelty song that only they have probably ever heard, and then in the next breath, they are blowing you away with a beautifully played Duke Ellington piece. They never play the same set twice, and they will play any request thrown at them – sometimes making it up on the spot if they don’t actually know the song. You never know what they’ll do next on stage – probably because they aren’t sure themselves. It makes for a wild and unpredictable show every time. Many fans will recall being in some out-of-the-way dive, totally blitzed, dancing on tables, while the band tore it up, Q-style. I, myself, remember seeing them in downtown Waterbury, CT, circa 1990, at a free outdoor show. I don’t remember much about the concert, except it was one hell of a good time.

NRBQ have serious chops but never bore you with them or make a big fuss about it. They are probably the most unpretentious band that ever lived. They have played hundreds, probably thousands of songs over the years, yet they have written many classics of their own, all the while flying under the radar of MTV, pop radio and any kind of mainstream acceptance (“appearances” on The Simpsons notwithstanding). The biggest reason why they haven’t become as big as they should have, or had huge pop hits, is the reason why they are so special and unique. They simply do things their own way, and have never been beholden to any one musical genre. They are the type of band that gives record company A&R executives ulcers.

The New Rhythm & Blues Quartet (formerly Qunitet) has been kicking around since 1967 in one form or another. They started out down in Florida, but eventually settled in New England, where some of the members are actually from. From 1974 to 1994 they consisted of their most famous lineup – original members Terry Adams (born in Louisville, KY, by way of Sun Ra’s rocket #9) on vocals and keyboards, and Bronx native Joey Spampinato on vocals and bass; plus former Wildweeds (of “No Good to Cry” semi-fame) leader Al Anderson (from Windsor, CT) joining in 1971 on vocals and guitar, and drummer Tom Ardolino (from Massachusetts) coming on board, full time, in 1974. Once Big Al left in 1994 for a successful second career as a Nashville songwriter, Joey’s brother Johnny joined on guitar, after spending several years in The Incredible Casuals. There were other members in the early days of the band: Steve Ferguson, Frank Gadler, Tom Staley and Kenny Sheehan. Not to mention their auxiliary members, The Whole Wheat Horns (Keith Spring and Terry’s brother Donn). Over the last few years they have been, more or less, on hiatus, only playing the occasional reunion gig, sometimes featuring all past and present bandmembers. I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of this band though, or so we hope.

Main songwriters Terry, Joey and Al have all written first-class songs. Terry could write great rock ‘n’ roll ravers (the cruising anthem “Me and the Boys”), and then write the wackiest, out-there number you could think of or the most childlike reverie on a toy piano; while Joey is a master of writing very melodic, Beatlesque ballads that are sweet, but never cloying, such as “Mona” and wedding favorite “I Love Her, She Loves Me.”

Big Al has always amazed me with the fact that, one minute, he is writing and singing one of the most wistful, exquisite pop songs to ever be written – the Beatlesque “Ridin’ in My Car” – and then he is tearin’ it up with the ultra-confident, macho swagger of the barnstorming, “so many women, so little time” rock ‘n’ roll shouter “It Comes to Me Naturally” And he sounds totally convincing in either song. On top of that, he can portray the lovable cad in the humorous, reggae-tinged “It Was a Accident.” Al can come on either vulnerable (as on ballads like “Never Take the Place of You” or “A Better Word for Love”) or macho (as noted in the songs listed above), and yet it’s always done with a sense of fun and style. It was certainly a sad day in Q history, when he decided to leave the band.

It’s still one of the bigger tragedies in music history that “Ridin’ in My Car” was not the number one hit it so clearly deserved to be. It had everything you could ever want in a single: pop hooks galore, simple, yet effective lyrics that were wistful and poignant, showing unrequited love at its more heartbreaking; it had a short and simple but very melodic country-tinged guitar solo, and exquisite Beach Boys-styled harmonies. Every second of the song was absolute perfection. They simply don’t come any finer.

Yet, success eluded them. Luckily, I grew up in Connecticut, where the song happened to get lots of airplay (and in Massachusetts, as well) in the winter of ’77, so I just assumed the song was a huge hit throughout the world, when I was a kid. It wasn’t. Why it failed to break out nationally is probably due to lack of sufficient promotion and distribution. It may also be because NRBQ is a band that record companies have never been able to figure out what to do with. You can’t promote them as a pop band because they aren’t a pop band (several songs notwithstanding). You can’t promote them as a straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll band – they are, of course, but they are much more than that. You can’t even promote them as a Weird Al-type novelty band – oh sure, they have had their share of wacky novelties (“Who Put the Garlic in the Glue?,” the marijuana ode “Wacky Tobacky” and “Rats in My Room”) – but that is just one side of their eclectic personality. They can play, with absolute skill and conviction, 1950s-style rock ‘n’ roll, outer-fringes jazz, country, pop, ballads, R&B, and everything in between, including, of all things, polka. There is no style they are not willing to try at least once. And they always do it with a sense of joy. They are never afraid to make complete fools out of themselves on stage, and their fans love every second of it. The Q clearly has one of the most devoted fan bases in all of music, next to The Grateful Dead and Phish.

For a short while during the 1980s, they were managed by wrestling champion “Captain” Lou Albano – even going as far as to make an album with him (1986’s Lou and the Q) and recording the ultra-catchy and downright goofy 1983 single “Captain Lou” in homage to him (he sold the single at wrestling matches). It’s 2 ½ minutes of tuneful madcap fun, with the good Captain going psycho at the end. It will leave you humming, not to mention smiling, for weeks afterwards.

I can list tons of songs that should have become huge hits for them: the aforementioned songs, “Ridin’ in My Car,” “It Comes to Me Naturally,” the rockin’ shoulda-been classic “Me and the Boys,” and “It Was a Accident,” as well as “Howard Johnson’s Got His Ho-Jo Workin’,” “It’s a Wild Weekend,” “Rain at the Drive-in,” “Green Lights,” “Flat Foot Floozy,” not to mention the utterly delightful, Brian Wilson-inspired, toy piano-enhanced, childlike holiday standard “Christmas Wish.” I could list more great songs but I’d be here all day.

There’s not much more to say about them. They are, simply, in a class of their own, and always will be. They may have never tore up the charts, had a cool image or had videos in heavy MTV rotation, but they had something much greater than that. They had respect, love and devotion from their fans, and have turned their passion for all types of music into a career that is almost half a century old. May they keep tearin’ it up on stages, worldwide, for many more years to come. Long live the Q!

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The Orange Peels – “So Far” (2001)

April 28, 2010 at 7:05 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Music works in mysterious ways, as do most other things in life. It’s funny how a song, or in this particular case, an album can evoke memories of a specific time and place that actually happened before the music even existed. I bought this album in the summer of 2001 and for some unexplainable reason it reminded me of a trip I had taken to Cocoa Beach, Florida with my then-wife the summer prior. Not only did it remind me of the trip but it actually felt like I had been listening to the album during the trip. The album hadn’t been recorded yet, though, so how is that possible? Who knows – again, just the power of music to recall memories from our past. The funny thing is, every time I listen to this album, I can still vividly recall that summer vacation as if I was still there – the hot, steamy weather, the ocean, the beach.

The reason why I fell in love with this album has nothing to with memories though. It has to do with the music itself, and simply put, this might be the best pure-pop album since the first Marshall Crenshaw platter, 19 years prior.

Allen Clapp, the mastermind behind The Orange Peels, possesses Crenshaw’s knack for writing sweet, innocent, catchy pop tunes reflecting matters of the heart – mainly the subject of awkward, unrequited love, and failed romance. Clapp sings in a voice that’s even more innocent and pure than Marshall once did. He sings for every teenage boy that was ever too afraid to walk up to a girl and ask her out, knowing that, at that age, there is no worse feeling than being rejected. The last singer to actually convey this feeling to such an amazing degree was The Hello Strangers leader, Michael “Spike” Priggen on the song “Anna Karina,” from 1987’s unjustly-obscure Goodbye.

This is another one of those albums where every song is a winner, and so, therefore, it’s better to experience it as a whole, rather than singling out individual tracks, as they are all of a piece. The band produce all sorts of interesting guitar tones, throughout the album, that make every song a bright and shining, diamond-cut gem. Album-opener “Back in San Francisco” sets the tone, and it’s probably the best song of a very high-quality bunch. Like the remainder of the songs, it’s a power pop number that manages to be wistful without being twee. It evokes 1960s Beatlesque pop, as well as the sounds of early-‘70s AM radio. Other great songs on this album include “Girl for All Seasons,” “Mystery Lawn” and “West Coast Rain,” but they are all equally great.

The band also throws in surf music influences (such as the early Beach Boys, and the guitar work of Dick Dale) without ever being beholden to that genre. They take all of their influences, though, and make them sound brand new. It’s not that they are doing anything original – they just manage to do it extremely well. Many power pop songs tend to sound the same after awhile, succumbing to the same tired formulas, but when someone knows exactly what to do with those clichés, and can make something new out of them, the results can be wonderful. Allan Clapp is one of those guys. And he proves it here in song after song.

Jay Mucci

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