Twice now I have been witness to what I consider a genuine rock’n’roll music miracle: The resurrection of one of not only my favorite bands of all time but one of the most unique and musically accomplished combos that I have ever seen perform.
The band is NRBQ – an abbreviation for New Rhythm & Blues Quartet (originally Quintet). If ever a group qualified as a “cult” act, it’s NRBQ. They started as a five piece in 1969, but the longest-running lineup of the group was from 1974 to 1994, featuring titular leader Terry Adams on keyboards and vocals, Al Anderson (aka Big Al) on guitar and vocals, Joey Spampinato on bass and vocals and Tom Ardolino on drums. Over that time they released a score or so of some of the most delightful and distinctive albums I’ve ever heard, not one of which ever came within even a parsec of being a best-seller. They made their living as a bar band – some say the world’s greatest, and I’d have to agree – primarily in the Northeast of the US.
The group in its two-decade four-man form had a stylistic breadth beyond any I have ever witnessed, ranging from free jazz to 1950s rock’n’roll and rockabilly to pop, sometimes in the same song. They had a genuine sense of youthful fun and wackiness matched by an awesome instrumental virtuosity on the part of all four. In their repertoire was at least hundreds of songs by others to many originals that to those of us who followed the group were true classics.
Though they never made it anywhere even close to “the big time,” they did have such interesting accomplishments as appearing on The Simpsons as animated characters (the show’s creator Matt Groening is a major fan) and bassist Joey Spampinato being recruited by Keith Richards to play behind Chuck Berry in the movie Hail! Hail! Rock’n'Roll. To most they were little more than a footnote in rock music history.
To those of us who were loyal followers, NRBQ could be on whatever night you saw them perform the greatest band you've ever seen, and made more than a few wonderful if little heard albums. Adams is a keyboard virtuoso on the order of Theolonius Monk, and Anderson is one of the finest rock and country guitar players on the planet. The whole group had a chemistry and musical cohesion like few bands I’ve ever seen (and I have literally seen thousands). They were, to those like me who were longtime loyalists, the true cat's meow when it came to rock music in its broadest terms.
Anderson left the band in 1994 to pursue a successful career as a Nashville songwriter and session guitarist in addition to a solo career. Joey Spaminato’s brother Johnny signed on as guitarist and the group continued to make sweet, great music for another 10 years until they finally broke up.
Drummer Ardolino died in early 2012, dashing any hopes that the magical quartet we devotees loved would ever play together again. The year before, Adams had shifted his solo band to become a new version of NRBQ. It was easy to be skeptical and the long-term ’74 to ’94 foursome were so beloved that it might have even seemed blasphemous.
Funny thing is, the NRBQ who have to date made two albums and that I've seen play live twice now is as good as the band was in its heyday – no small feat given the musicality, songwriting ability and attitude that requires. Never in all my years as a music fan has a group been able to reconvene around one remaining member and not just recreate a highly ephemeral and even mystical spirit that recalls the three other players and have the newcomers bring something even more to the table.
It’s something I never considered any other band even capable of doing, much less NRBQ, who were such a distinctive act that it seemed impossible for the magic to ever happen again. But so it has.
Which makes me about as happy a music fan as I can be with the prospect of the band continuing again for what I pray is many years to come. If they happen by your way on tour, and you truly love rock’n’roll, I urge you to see them for one of the most musical and fun experiences you are ever likely to encounter.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2013
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