Thursday, March 10, 2011

1998: NRBQ Again

This review was written a decade after my previous NRBQ article, by which time the great Al Anderson had left the band. Though the Q have broken up, they do reunite from time to time, sometimes with Big Al on board. There is an NRBQ tribute album, with tracks by Steve Earle, Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos and many others. And hey, I got your NRBQ videos right here.

First of all, what needs to be said, with considerable respect due for new guitarist Johnny Spampinato, is that the loss of Al Anderson was a grievous one. I had a wonderful time, but Big Al was sorely missed. Nobody should have to stand in his sizeable shadow, but still. Johnny might be a crack guitarist in anyone else's band, but it was halfway through the show before he ripped off a solo that really made me sit up and take notice. The songs Johnny sang did not have any particular sheen to them, and both his ax and his voice were mixed low, as if even the sound man wasn't quite sure about him, four years on.

During Al's 23 years with NRBQ, he would tear into a killer solo nearly every song, and not only expertly, but with a distinctive style that you could recognize as his even if he recorded with some other band. It wasn't just his disarmingly sweet falsetto renditions of Motown tunes, either, but the way he could howl out a raver like George Jones' "White Lightning." And when Al left to go solo, he took his catalog of originals with him as well, many of them NRBQ classics.

That said, we still saw an evening of first class rock 'n' roll. I have seen literally hundreds of bands in my day, and as good old Elvis Costello says, there are few I would rather see on any given evening than the Q. You still have two strong legs of the songwriting triumvirate. Terry Adams is as manic as ever, but Joey is now the frontman, taking the lion's share of the lead vocals, as befits the best singer, and probably the strongest composer in the band.

They opened strong with "Wild Weekend," title tune from the album of the same name. Most of the audience was my age or older. Many sat with arms folded, having heard that the "legendary" NRBQ was coming to town, wanting to see what all the fuss was about. By the end of the night they were all up dancing.

Fun is the keyword here. I have never seen musicians having so much fun doing their jobs. This turned out to be the last leg of their 30th anniversary tour. They seem just like a bunch of fifty-year-old kids, and you can easily imagine them doing this another 30 years. Why the hell not?

Terry was as amazing as ever. Clearly he could have just as easily have given us a note-perfect Rachmaninoff concerto. He could have played flawlessly in the style of Thelonius Monk or Jerry Lee Lewis. Instead he chose to play like Terry Adams, slapping those keyboards like conga drums, somehow hitting just the right chords, or picking out notes with karate chops, or playing with his wrists, elbows, or buttocks and still sounding great. He's not afraid to show us technique, but equally unafraid of getting loose and flailing like a madman. He also stood and harrangued us a couple of times, all in capital letters. "OH MAN I JUST LOVE THAT SONG THAT JOEY JUST PLAYED! DON'T YOU LOVE THAT SONG? OH! I FEEL SO GOOD I WANT YOU TO FEEL GOOD TOO!!!"

Joey just grinned and pulled out one sweet little ditty after another, like "Little Floater," his love song for his automobile, or "Raining at the Drive-In," the memoir of backseat sex, or "I Love Her, She Loves Me," written for his wedding. And of course, he's one of the greatest bass players it's ever been my privilege to witness. And don't get me wrong, his brother was no slouch, either. In tribute, Terry pulled out a song in tribute to the Spampinato brothers, instructing us all on how to spell the surname. Helpfully, a pair of roadies crossed the stage with a huge banner emblazoned with the word in question.

Tom Ardolino waddled out from behind his drum set three times. The first was to play pedal steel on a lovely instrumental number. The second time was to warble the old Burt Bacharach song "This Guy's in Love With You." Halfway through, a flugelhorn was produced, and the song nearly stumbled to a halt as the instrument was passed from Tom to Terry to Joey to Johnny, who then attempted a brief solo to warm applause. Tom also emerged a third time to beat out a drum duet with Terry on two snares, front and center. I'm not sure why, but it sure was a hoot.

They were called back out for two encore sets of about four songs each. At the end, Joey sang us a fine rendition of Al Anderson's signature tune, "Ridin' in my Car," plus another song that Al had made his own, Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm." It almost made up for Al's absence, but don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. Watching NRBQ, even without him, makes me about as happy as I ever get.

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