Tuesday, January 25, 2011

1988: NRBQ in Santa Cruz

If that acronym means nothing to you, I'm pleased to introduce you to one of my very favorite bands, celebrating their 45th anniversary next week. The Original Q is no longer active, but you can still catch live dates by the Terry Adams Rock and Roll Quartet, which is not known as TARRQ. Here, try some videos or some albums.

The world's most underrated band blew into town again last Saturday night - four monster talents known collectively as the New Rhythm & Blues Quartet. Those in the know were out in force at the Catalyst, gamely wagging their butts in time to the patented quirky rhythms. The rest of you didn't know what you were missing.

Virtuoso musicianship aside, this may be the funniest band you'll ever see. Just watching their faces can crack you up, never mind some of the goofball songs they play. This is a band that can cover virtually any style of American popular music. They can play jazz straight ahead, sideways or backwards. They can play country ballads or rockabilly, R&B or soul, straight rock 'n' roll or '40s-style swing. And yet, as often as not, they'll follow up a Thelonious Monk tune with something by Alvin and the Chipmunks.

NRBQ's deceptively simple, melodically infectious original tunes define their point of view. Happily devoid of Great Meanings, they have titles like "That's Neat, That's Nice" or "I Feel So Good I Want You to Feel Good Too." The wistful "Ridin' in My Car" and the happy-go-lucky "Me and the Boys" are good-natured slices of life, while ditties like "Down at the Zoo" or "Rats in My Room" would not be out of place on the next Raffi album.

Keyboardist Terry Adams epitomizes the band's manic spirit. "Let's have a good time right now!" he shrieks, pounding out the unrecognizable opening chords to some song until his mates fall in behind him. Adams is like a man possessed. He plays with his fists, his elbows, his feet. He plays two, three keyboards at once. He growls something incomprehensible into the mike. He plays the same note a hundred and forty times in a row. He flails away at dissonant clusters of chords that somehow mesh perfectly with the rest of the band chugging away in the background. Adams, who has toured with jazz artist Carla Bley, plays piano like a cross between Cecil Taylor and Jerry Lee Lewis. And he acts like Pee-Wee Herman on acid. A lot of acid.

Now, even though there's a microphone right in front of him, Adams lurches across the stage to grab the bass player's mike. It's time, once again, for him to poke fun at the rotund, perpetually scowling guitarist, Al Anderson. "Look at him, ladies and gentlemen, I love this man, three hundred pounds of joy, Al Anderson!!!!" With a wan smile, Anderson launches into the old blues classic and more than does it justice. He has a remarkably broad vocal range, employing the upper reaches on old Motown ballads, and digging into the lower end for an authentic rendition of George Jones's "White Lightnin'," complete with belches. While Anderson never shows up in any guitarist's polls, he is a world-class fretboard master. Several times a night, he will lay out a frenetic solo that grabs you by the collar, stares you down and wins.

"All right Joey Spampinato, I saw you in that Chuck Berry movie!!!" bellows Adams as the band swings into "Johnny B. Goode." It is indeed the diminutive bassist's claim to fame (who ever heard of NRBQ, after all?) that Keith Richards selected him for the all-star pickup band that accompanied the maestro for his 60th birthday spectacular. You can never hear the bass in a movie theater though--you've got to see Spampinato up close and personal. Listening to his robust basslines while he shouts out Berry's classic lyrics leaves no doubt what caught Richards's ear. Along with drummer Tom Ardolino, he forms the solid underpinning for NRBQ's maddeningly unique sound.

Believe it or not, these boys were relatively subdued at this gig. Ensconced at the Catalyst after years of dropping into OT's once or twice annually, they appeared to be on their best behavior. For instance, Adams did not wear his hideous red-white-and-blue buckskin jacket, nor did he sing "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" until booed off the stage. And, unfortunately, Ardolino did not emerge from his drum kit to croon a medley of Herman's Hermits hits. Nevertheless, they more than made up for this by bringing along the Whole Wheat Horns, two gentlemen named Jim Bob and Clem who blew some furious charts and arresting solos. Together, the six of them brought down the house with a show-stopping "Me and the Boys" "Get Rhythm" combination. If this isn't one of the best damn bands in the country, you tell me who is.

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