When Joey Spampinato’s birthday rolled around in 1978, his three comrades in NRBQ decided to throw a party. Since the bassist was a Bronx native and a dedicated baseball fan, they rented Yankee Stadium for the occasion, picnicking on second base and then posing for photos in a field box. One of those shots provided the cover for the band’s next album, At Yankee Stadium, and to fans the whole notion amounted to a perverse inside joke. Far from being a stadium mainstay, NRBQ was an idiosyncratic bar band whose popularity with critics and fellow musicians rarely translated into large audiences or much money. And as if to underline the point, Mercury Records dropped NRBQ from the label only two weeks after At Yankee Stadium appeared.
But on an October night a little more than a decade later, as NRBQ scrambles onto the stage before thousands of listeners at the Memorial Coliseum, in Portland, Oregon, irony is coming closer to reality. A sixteen-date tour of basketball arenas and outdoor amphitheaters with R.E.M. will bring NRBQ’s impertinent amalgam of roots rock, modern jazz and novelty tunes to more than 100,000 listeners, or as many as hear the band in nearly three years of the club shows that have traditionally been its ballast. A major label, Virgin Records, has put its marketing muscle behind NRBQ’s first studio album in six years, Wild Weekend, and its first video ever. Rave reviews have already appeared in an array of major newspapers and national magazines. After twenty years and fifteen records, then, something approaching fame is at hand.
And precisely because it is such a veteran outfit, NRBQ greets the prospect with circumspection. “A certain amount of success isn’t what keeps us together,” says Terry Adams, the band’s keyboard player. “It’s not our purpose in life. But it’s something that this band deserves to have. People think we’ve tried on purpose to stay sub-underground, but we’ve always tried to have a hit record. We’ve always given labels singles. We’ve always had high hopes of being on the radio, being on the charts. Maybe the timing just wasn’t right. Maybe it didn’t happen then so it could happen now.”
Whatever rewards NRBQ earns, it is clear, it will earn entirely on its own terms. The new record, coproduced by Bill Scheniman and Andy Paley, wanders in typical NRBQ fashion from pop ballad to zydeco stomp to obscure cover. Opening for an austere and increasingly stylized R.E.M. on the road, the band members present themselves as serious musicians who don’t take themselves too seriously.
Adams wears his blond choirboy locks tied in a kind of sumo knot, while Spampinato, the sloe-eyed heartthrob, has several strands braided and beaded à la Bo Derek. The large and scowling Al Anderson, on guitar, brings to mind Ronnie Hawkins, while Tom Ardolino, behind the drums, is a Buddha with bobbing curls. As the half-hour set begins, Adams bangs and chops dissonant chords on his clavinet, then pinwheels around the instrument much like his idol, the late jazz master Thelonious Monk, and finally drops to his knees as he strikes the cue notes for “Me and the Boys,” a powerpop ode to male bonding. From there the band careens from the blue-eyed soul of “Let’s Make Love” to the rockabilly “White Lightnin’,” each verse punctuated by an Anderson belch, to the jazzy jump of “That’s Neat, That’s Nice.” Along the way, Ardolino’s beat stops only long enough for Adams to exclaim with mock jubilation, “They liked that one!”
For NRBQ followers, such eclecticism and humor are the band’s hallmarks. For the young and uninitiated, the same traits can bewilder as well as beguile. “They weren’t what I expected,” Kelley Callison, a seventeen-year-old high-school student, says delicately. “I thought they’d be more like R.E.M.” A few rows away, however, Tom Crestodina pronounces himself a true believer. “It’s a good thing there are still a few rock bands that aren’t afraid to just get out and jam,” says the eighteen-year-old. “Most of what we get are slick types, New Kids on the Block. I got the feeling these guys were really enjoying themselves.”
Enjoying themselves, for that matter, has been the credo of NRBQ’s members since the band’s origin in the late 1960s. Both Adams and Spampinato hail from the band’s earliest days, when it went by the full name of New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, and each arrived carrying the seeds of what would become its catholic style. A formally trained piano prodigy from Louisville, Adams adored both the barrelhouse rock of Link Wray and Little Richard and the thorny jazz improvisations of Monk and Sun Ra. Spampinato had trained his pop ear listening to the Everly Brothers and singing in street-corner doo-wop groups before taking up the bass. What the two shared, besides a mutual respect, was a conviction that their nascent band not be bound by genre. So they covered Sun Ra’s “Rocket Number Nine” on their maiden album, then teamed up with Carl Perkins on their second, and overall sounded like nothing so much as a free-form radio station governed by intelligent whim.
“We did what we wanted to do the way we wanted to do it whenever we wanted to do it,” Adams says. “We started it that way, and we were spoiled, because we got away with it for so many years that if anyone tried to tell us we couldn’t, it was too late.”
Already a Connecticut hero with his own band, the Wildweeds, Anderson joined NRBQ in 1971, supplying prolific songwriting skills and a longtime love of country music, and three years later Ardolino came on board fresh from his high school in Springfield, Massachusetts, establishing a lineup that has not changed since. As it recorded innovative and eccentric albums and built a fervent club following in the Northeast, NRBQ periodically ventured into the arenas as an opening act. Some of the pairings, as with B.B. King and Ike and Tina Turner, at least made musical sense if they did not result in commercial breakthroughs; the tours with Deep Purple and Alice Cooper, however, were blueprints for disaster. “All we wanted was for people to listen to our music,” Adams recalls, “and we’re competing with guys hanging themselves.” In a different sort of irony, Bruce Springsteen opened for NRBQ several times in the early 1970s.
Times changed and NRBQ did not, creating a wider distance between the band and the market. It was not, as Adams has said, that the band deliberately sought the fringe, for over the years NRBQ recorded songs like “Ridin’ in My Car,” “A Girl Like That” and “I Want You Bad,” which were tuneful enough that they could, and probably should, have been hits. But making a hit was never an end in itself. The band’s albums maintained a kind of inspired sloppiness, which led its members to a certain wariness of outside producers, and its live shows celebrated anarchy. On a given night, either the professional wrestler Captain Lou Albano or the comedian Professor Irwin Corey might introduce the band, and it was Corey who lampooned the group’s cult status by telling one crowd, “Here is an organization that has done so much for so long for so few that you as a people represent the conflict in that order.” And from a repertoire of 600 songs, NRBQ was as likely to launch into Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm” as Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie” or even Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally).” The band’s sound, far from being tight, had the casual telepathy of a great jazz ensemble for which any melody is an invitation to improvise.
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