NRBQ to continue revival at Look Park's Pines Theater
By Craig Harris
Special to Reminder Publications
With a repertoire that includes everything from pop tunes, rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, jazz, blues, country, and Disney classics, NRBQ is the embodiment of America's music. Though only one of their records have broken into the top-70, their enthusiastic, good-timey, anything-goes shows have made them fan favorites for more than four and half decades.
The former house band for animated TV series, "The Simpsons," Bonnie Raitt, Dave Edmunds and Los Lobos covered their songs.
A bout with Stage 4 throat cancer forced founder, leader, pianist and vocalist Terry Adams to put NRBQ on hiatus for much of the first decade of the 2000s, but his recovery has not only meant the resurrection of the band, but also the dawning of a new era of great music. Only Adams remains from previous lineups, but the current quartet plays with an instrumental flexibility and joie de vivre that makes it as much fun as past incarnations.
"Every night is different," Adams said. "It's been pointed out that we don't use a set-list, but if you respond to what's needed, each night, each room, each audience, you can't help but for it to be different. It's always fresh to us."
Since the beginning, Adam's enthusiasm has fueled NRBQ's performances. "I'm the one who never sleeps in NRBQ," he joked. "If I don't come up with a new song, I put an end to something. I hear this stuff, in my head, in the middle of the night. To have a band good enough to implement it, and make it happen, is a real thrill."
Adams has come a long way. "If I look at getting ill in retrospect," he said, "I imagine being a Native American sitting in a room, with a rattlesnake, and letting its poison, the venom, hit you. You come out of it, spiritually, a better person. I didn't volunteer to get sick, but I cannot think of a more wonderful experience. The agony of the illness and the treatment for it, and the amount of time for recovery, gives you plenty of time to realize the changes in your life that you need to make."
The steps to reviving NRBQ (who perform at The Pines Theater, in Look Park, Florence, on Oct. 7) began even before Adams had gotten sick. He had reunited with original NRBQ guitarist, Steve Ferguson, after 32 years, to record, and play shows, in 2002.
"I have wanted to make sure that his music was heard even though he left NRBQ in 1970," Adams said. "I've given his songs to other artists and I hired him to play on the record I did with [Chuck Berry's former pianist] Johnny Johnson. He played the warmest music, like sitting by a fire. We did half of an album and then, he needed a serious heart operation. He went through that, and, then, I went through my sickness. I just knew that, as soon as I could set it up, I was going to finish that record. That's what I did. I got him, [longtime NRBQ drummer] Tom [Ardolino], and a great bassist and we hit the road, not a lot, but we went to Japan, the Midwest, and the Northeast. I was too weak to go out, but I did it anyway. Time is too precious."
Determined to keep going, Adams reached out to his former band-mates. Founding bassist Joey Spampinato, and his guitarist, Johnny, though, were busy with their own band and unavailable. Ferguson had just begun to fight the cancer that would take his life in October 2009. Ardolino was struggling with his health, as well.
Forced to build a band from scratch, Adams put together a good one. Chicago-based Scott Ligon has, not only carried on NRBQ's legacy of awe-inspiring guitarists, but has also expanded on the work of his predecessors with his own style.
"Scott understands the spirit of the band," Adams said. "He's listened to Steve Ferguson and Al Anderson, but he's gone beyond that. When I met him, I didn't hear him play the guitar. He sat down at a piano and played a song for me. I had heard that he played the guitar, so I asked him to send me a recording with him on the guitar. He didn't bother. Later on, I asked him, which was his main instrument the piano or the guitar. He said 'neither,' that his main instrument was his voice. He's so talented that he can pick up whatever instrument is near him and play, but he loves to sing, too."
Having introduced the new NRBQ with a studio album, "Keep This Love Goin'" in 2011, Adams and the band, including drummer Conrad Choucroun, and bassist Pete Donnelly (The Figgs), upped the ante with a live album, "We Travel The Spaceways," recorded at the Bearsville Theater, Bearsville, N.Y., in April 2011.
A musical tapestry as rich as anything in their discography, the album signaled the direction that NRBQ had, and completed several important circles. As a guest drummer, Ardolino, who succumbed to a longtime illness on Jan. 6, 2012, makes his final recorded appearances on several tunes.
The title track, by jazz visionary Sun Ra, has been in NRBQ's repertoire since the band's earliest days.
"I was a fan when I was young, around 1965," Adams said, "and I would see him every chance I got. Eventually, Sun Ra gave me his phone number and told me to call him. I went up to where he was living and he gave me a 45-RPM of 'Rocket Number Nine.' That was the catalyst for getting NRBQ together again. We had been together in '66 and, maybe, three or four weekends in '67. When we started again, I would bring a few songs of his with me to rehearsals, one of which was 'We Travel the Spaceways.' We've been working on that one, all these years, to get it to a place that we could call our own. It has a lot to do with the rhythmic feel."
The album also includes a treatment of "Bye Ya," by jazz pianist and composer Thelonius Monk. Adams had originally arranged it, along with others, when he was performed a special concert, "Terry Plays Monk and..," in Burlington, Vt., in April 2012.
"I have so much respect for [Monk]," he said. "It was like sitting down and playing a Bach piece. I spent a lot of time thinking about those songs, wanting to do them with the right spirit, but also make them sound different from what people have heard before."
Although increasing demands on his time caused Donnelly to hand in his resignation, in August 2012, Chicago-based bassist Casey McDonough has replaced him. "Casey is perfect for us," Adams said. "He and [Ligon] played together in a band, The Western Elephants, and they have a great thing going on. They sing good harmonies together and they can change in midstream."
Adams is eagerly looking forward to bringing the new NRBQ into the studio to record. "It's going to be a real pleasure working with these musicians," he said. "Change is always tough at first. I'm temperamental and I hate to see any member leave, but change is always for the better. You have to move on, you have to grow."
For more information on the show, call 978-744-2148.