Friday, January 31, 2014

NRBQ - The Sign of the Times

Sometimes you just have to follow your intuition.
When I saw that NRBQ, my favorite band from my hippiefied college days back in the crazy 70s, was playing at Ramshead in Annapolis, a little voice inside my head said, “Buy now!”
I know you can’t catch lightning in a bottle more than once. And I wasn’t hoping that I could magically be transported back into my psychedelic past. Been there. Done that. And I’m all growed up now.
To be honest, I’m not really sure what I expected.
I was introduced to the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet (NRBQ) when I was going to Randolph Macon College, in Virginia, in 1973. I used to party with friends at the University of Virginia and NRBQ often played at a place called the Mousetrap.
NRBQ has held the title of the “best bar band in America” for many years now. That’s a hard moniker to earn, and even tougher to hold on to. They used to do more than 200 gigs a year for over twenty years, playing in little sleazy dives all over the United States. They played every kind of music under the sun and their shows were – How you say? – unstructured, like going to a wild party with good tunes, where they charged admission.
The band consisted of four crazed young men who all came from musical families and every show was a fun-packed danceathon. There was no script.
Terry Adams, the band’s founding father front man lunatic was a child piano prodigy from Louisville, Kentucky with long blond hair and a pony tail sticking up on top of his head, who played multiple keyboards with his hands, feet, elbows, and head. A born actor with eyes like crystals, Terry would take over a stage with his zany antics for hours on end.
Big Al Anderson was the redneck guitarist from Wheeling, West Virginia who took no shit and who made his battered Fender guitar dance in his beefy hands like an old toy. When Big Al riffed a solo, everyone in the crowd would be doing the Ubangi Stomp, fist pumping, and playing air guitar. He was a musical force of nature, like a big granite boulder standing in the middle of a fast-moving river. He didn’t jump around or ham it up. He just cut her loose and the notes flew off the strings of his guitar like sparks. And he had a voice like hillbilly sandpaper.
The rhythm section was one of the best to ever light up a stage.

Tommy Ardolina hailed from Springfield Massachusetts and was all wild frizzy black hair, with an impish smile, stoner eyes, and uncontrollable urge to bang the gong. When Tommy played, it often looked like he was fighting.
Bonnie Raitt once told the Boston Globe, "Tommy deserves an entire wing in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There's [Rolling Stones drummer] Charlie Watts, and there's Tom Ardolino. That's it."
Joey Spompinato was a wild-haired kid from the Bronx with a hook nose who could make a base guitar sound like any instrument – or barnyard animal – you could imagine. He was also a master song writer and played with some of rock’s greatest legends like Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, and Eric Clapton.
NRBQ was much greater than the sum of their parts. Like Peter Falk's infamous TV character Columbo, it was easy to not take their music too seriously at first, because they seemed to make it look so easy and be having such a swell time. But everyone, from the Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan, saw through their “ah shucks” act and recognized their music for what it truly was: friggin brilliant.
Elvis Costello once told Rolling Stone, "I'd much rather any day go see NRBQ playing than any of our illustrious punk bands in England."
But for all their talents, NRBQ never was a commercial success.
“We get disappointed sometimes, and we don't understand," Ardolino told an interviewer in 1992. "One of our old record labels sent us a statement once claiming the total sales of one of our albums was three cassettes. But it ain't gonna stop us. Besides, I think we have a great life. We get to play whatever we want, and we got to meet a lot of great people. I know all the good record stores in every town."
More recently, the group served as the unofficial "house band" for The Simpsons, and several of their songs including "Mayonnaise and Marmalade" were written specifically for the show. The band also appeared in animated form, performing the shows theme song during the episode “Take My Wife Sleaze”.
At an NRBQ concert anything was likely to happen. They played toy instruments. They hired professional wresting great Captain Lou Albano to be their manager and he was always on stage making a fool of himself, often dressed in full wrestling regalia. They exploded Cabbage Patch dolls. Famous musicians, especially hot horn players like the Whole Wheat Horns, were often dropping in to catch a show and joining the band for a set or two. And they always had this glass bowl on stage and the audience would scribble down the name of some weird song on a matchbook cover or a piece of paper, and then drop it in the bowl. When Terry got bored, he would suddenly go, “What time is it?” And he would cover his eyes theatrically with his dashiki-draped arm as Tommy did a drum roll, and pick out a request from the bowl. Then he’d read off the name of the song, usually some obscure ditty like “North to Alaska”, and the boys would play it without missing a beat. No one ever stumped the band. They were like a human jukebox.
But all that fun and past glory is but a fleeting memory now. Big Al is down in Nashville working with Tim McGraw and all of the county music kings and queens as a popular session guitarist. Joey has formed a hip band called the Spampinato Brothers with his guitar wizard brother. Tommy died in 2012, after battling various addictions. And Terry went toe to toe with cancer for several hard years.
So, when I saw the ad for the NRBQ show, I really didn’t know what to make of it. NRBQ didn’t – couldn’t – exist, anymore than I could be 22 years old again with the world on a string. But like I said, sometimes you just have to follow the dream.
It was about zero degrees outside on a Tuesday night as I walked into the Ramshead with my old friend Shep, who still has a band that plays locally around Annapolis called Blue Suede Bop. The audience was well seasoned, mostly 50-somethings with graying hair and nice clothes. These same folks had danced like crazed weasels to the sounds of NRBQ when they were young and wild, and it was very interesting to sit there and contemplate growing old through the lens of our past shenanigans. Even after all those wild weekends, we seemed to have come out the other side of the rabbit hole unscathed and done pretty well for ourselves. Imagine that.
As we waited for the band, I flashed back to shows I had danced my ass off at in long lost bars throughout the east coast, in Charlottesville, Providence, Boston, New York, Richmond, B'mo, Philly, D.C. My memories were sketchy. Age will do that to you. I guess that if you have to forget something, remember what happened and forget the names.
The “new” NRBQ is Terry Adams and three hot young bucks who can really tear it up and down. And thank goodness they didn’t try and resurrect the dead. That’s a really annoying trend these days. The playbill on our table showcased several upcoming shows, including some lame dipshit who looks like Bono, down to the purple wrap around shades and greased back hair, who will magically recreate the U2 experience. And Bon Jovi has proven through their latest sold out tour that is the hottest musical ticket on earth, that playing those golden oldies is a very lucrative business model. But not NRBQ.
The first hour was all new music, covering the sounds of Gershwin, the Beatles, Beach Boys, Sun Ra, Carl Perkins, and every style – Cajun, soul, Rythm and Blues, Tex-Mex, surf, roots, ska, country, swing, rock, jazz – it was all there for the taking.
The second hour was old home week as they unveiled their old songs. And while it was sort of the same, it was way different. They were the old songs but with new angles.
My friend Shep put it best when he said, “They got the spirit.”
And that got me wondering whether a band – a single group of musicians – could capture the spirit of a whole decade in American history? And I don’t mean just the music. I’m talking about the culture. The very essence of the 70s. And my answer is, yes. NRBQ probably came the closest to snagging the free form sense of abandon and youthful possibilities that those of us who came of age during the Age of Aquarius experienced.
Terry Adams was still the master. Simply complex. Slightly dazed and looking vaguely confused. Laughing non-stop, but more to himself, like he was listening to some internal joke. He was like a monkey Buddha…on acid.
Terry Adams is 64 years young and he seemed more childlike today than he had when was a young punk and beyond control. His voice is pretty much gone. He can’t even come close to hitting the note any more. But it didn’t matter a lick. He was touched by the spirit.
See that’s the thing. Everyone thinks their time was the best. I get that. And it’s cool. But every time has its own style that defines it for the ages. And my time – NRBQ’s time – was the flower power generation, all tie dyed psychedelic free love and music. That was our thing. We produced more good music than any time before or after. We were always stoned on something and in search of pleasure and enlightenment. We mixed and matched clothes styles from Goodwill and Sunny's Surplus, lived on Shakedown Street, and practiced communal everything as we tuned in and dropped out. And now we own Microsoft and Apple. As Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead often said, “It was a long strange trip” indeed.
I just celebrated my 60th birthday, and I have few illusions. I’m on my way back to the barn. It’s pretty hard to have lived through Vietnam and Richard Nixon, and not be pretty cynical. I think that once we all got paired up and married, life sort of sucked away the passion, leaving us with jaded memories, pleasant dreams, and lots of neat toys. Some would say we just grew up, or wised up. And maybe that’s true. But I’m not sure that a great song from the 70s could ever be a hit today. And I wonder why that is?
To say that NRBQ was prolific is like saying that life is a gamble. Each song title is an open book and a sign of a simpler and more amusing time that always brings a smile.

• RC Cola and a Moon Pie
• Me and the Boys
• Ridin’ In My Car
• Music Goes Round and Around
• Rain at the Drive-In
• My Girlfriend's Pretty

• Howard Johnson’s Got His Ho-Jo Workin’
• Wacky Tobacky
• When Things Was Cheap
• Smackaroo
• I Like That Girl
• Get Rhythm
• That's Neat, That's Nice
• It Comes to Me Naturally
• What a Nice Way to Go
• You're Nice People You Are
• There's a Girl, There's a Boy
• Keep Lookin' For Tumbleweeds, Danny
• It's St. Patrick's Day
• Plenty of Somethin'
• Proctor's Gamble
• Rats in My Room
• Boardin' House Pie
• Dry Up and Blow Away
• It's a Wild Weekend
• Over Your Head
• Ain't No Free
 • Jump Man Jump
• Mule in the Corn
• I Got a Rocket in My Pocket
• Some Kind of Blues
• Trouble at the Henhouse
• 12 Bar Blues
• Get That Gasoline Blues
• Girl Scout Cookies
• Mayonnaise and Marmalade
• It Don’t Take But A Few Minutes
• Katie Loves Bobby
• Throw Out The Life Line
• Hot Biscuit and Sweet Marie
• Flat Foot Flewzy
• Captain Lou
• When It's Summertime in the Wintertime
• Finger Poppin' Time
• Kentucky Slop Song
• Who Put The Garlic In The Glue?
• New Tune
• Nervous Breakdown
• Sink the Bismark
• What's the Plot?
• Mambo Jambo
• The Dummy Song
• Honey Hush
• Atsa My Band
• Program Them Computers
• Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive
• A Little Bit of Bad
• Don't Bite the Head
• Big Dumb Jukebox
• Designated Driver
• Nothin' Wrong with Me
• A Better Word for Love
• Boozoo and Leona
• I Want My Mommy
• Advice for Teenagers
• Everybody's Smokin'
• Crazy Like a Fox
• Shake, Rattle and Roll
• It Was An Accident
• Here Comes Terry
• Goofus
• Step Aside 
• New Lang Syne
As we walked out of the show, into a dreamy snow as light as goose down feathers, I was singing one of my favorite NRBQ tunes, That’s Neat, That’s Nice:
       Can you count to four?
       Do you want to know more?
       Can you feel that beat?
       That’s neat.
       Can you shut your eyes?
       Can you tell that you’re still alive?
       Would you pay that price?
       That’s nice.
       Can you spell your name?
       Do you think that it’s all a game?
       And would you if you could?
       That’s good.
I turned to my buddy Shep, and said with a big smile, “Remember this night, my friend. And when I die, I want them to carve those words on my tombstone.
Shep chuckled and we slapped five as he howled into the snowy night wind,
       “TH-TH-THA-THAT’S All Folks!”