NRBQ, 1978, ALBUM #239
Part of the fun of being a music fanatic is trying to find that great, unknown band in the wilderness. Probably everyone has a story of going to a show to see one band and being knocked out by the other, or going to a bar and seeing someone completely unknown and amazing. It's what makes the search so rewarding. We want to believe that all our hard work will pay off, and we'll either help break a great band, or have a secret treasure all to ourselves.
This next paragraph isn't going to be popular, but that idea of the "lost" great band is one of music's greatest myths. If there's anything I've learned in almost 30 years of music listening, it's that if a band is truly great, and I mean truly worth listening to, and they are willing to put in the work and the effort, you will hear of them. It might take ten years (that's right-- it might take hundreds of shows and two or three warmup albums) for them to crack their local scene shell, but eventually they do and they will. They may not ever make the top 10 or headline a tour, but every single great band I've ever heard that hung in there got some kind of a shot: a song on a soundtrack, a record deal, a national tour, fifteen minutes of regional fame. Something. It's what keeps me going playing bass for my friends locally. I know that if they keep pushing at it, they will get heard, because the cream does rise: genuine talent will out. The are hundreds of perfectly fine bands out there you'll never hear, but brilliant bands don't toil forever in utter obscurity; if there was one, you would tell us, and then... presto! They're heard.
NRBQ is a classic example of what I'm talking about, both as a treasure handed off fan-to-fan, and as a band that eventually had their moment, albeit a quiet one. NRBQ, which has existed since 1968 and from 1972 to 1992 featured the classic lineup of huge and terrific lead guitarist Al Anderson, zany, entertaining but prickly-as-hell keyboardist Terry Adams, super-musical Joey Spampinato (Paul McCartney crossed with the bronx-- the Stones asked him to replace Bill Wyman in '89 before "settling" for Daryl Jones) and drummer Tom Ardolino (whose first ever job was... being the drummer in NRBQ-- he hopped up for an encore one night when he was 19 and never left), is frequently cited as one of those bands that never made it. Instead, they are one of the great cult bands of the last thirty years, playing hundreds of shows a year primarily up and down the New England coast and working from a setlist rumored to be 500 songs deep.* They never had a hit single, and if one of their albums charted, it was for a hot minute at the bottom of the top 200. Most people have not heard of them. (Readers of this blog just said, "Really? NRBQ?" to themselves, but trust me-- you're a pretty rarified audience. I have friends who are big music fans who have NO idea this band exists.)
And it's a shame, because they were great. (NRBQ still exists and tours, but without Anderson, who retired from the road, they're just not the same thing.) If you're looking for a place to start, I would suggest right here, on their greatest record. It's a great example of everything surrounding the band. First, there's the ironic, "Wouldn't it be great if we were a big band?" cover art and title. The band is sitting in four seats along first base. More importantly, there's one great song after another. In fact, At Yankee Stadium is like a classic live set from the band. There are the energetic original rockers ("Green Light," "Ridin' In My Car," "I Want You Bad") which celebrate childlike, innocent pleasures (driving a nice car, being with a pretty girl), the romantic ballads ("I Love Her, She Loves Me," "Yes Yes Yes") that border on being cloyingly sweet (NRBQ are the masters of the "first dance" wedding love song), the great rockabilly covers ("Get Rhythm," "Shake Rattle And Roll") which the band plays with complete mastery and authority of the genre.
What holds all these tunes together? That NRBQ beat: as great as Anderson is as a player, as interesting and attention-grabbing as Adams is as a player, and as melodic and effortlessly musical as Spampinato can be, drummer Ardolino is without question the band's secret weapon.
By the fourth track, I'll bet you'll be hard-pressed to think of a more subtle, swinging drummer. Ardolino's pocket (the space between the kick drum and the snare) is HUGE, like a bathtub. It's irresistible. Listen to the swing he gives "Just Ain't Fair" or the drive he creates in "Get Rhythm" without doing anything! I can't think of another drummer who does so much with so little except for Al Jackson, Jr. from the MGs. The link below is for "Ridin' In My Car;" sadly, it's a slight remix that adds shotgun reverb to Ardolino's snare drum. I prefer the dry version, in which you can hear how much sound he wills out of his kit with such simple playing.
Trying to learn how to play? Want to give your kid a drumming idol that he can actually emulate instead of Bonham? Not sure what to do with your curly hair? Look no further.
The band made At Yankee Stadium in 1978 at the height of disco and the new wave / punk revolution. That tells you something right there-- the band was wildly out of step with the times. They would fit in right now with the Wilcos and Okkervil Rivers of the world, but it's impossible to think of these songs sitting comfortably on the radio with much else going on in 1978. That's part of its appeal, of course-- this is a band for people who love timeless great songs and musicianship, not flash. Al Anderson is an astonishing guitar player, and live, he will melt your face (and also potentially try to eat it-- his nickname is "300 lbs. of heavenly joy" for a reason). On record, though, Al served the song, and so his solos reveal terrific dexterity and skill, but not a "whoooooooooooo!" moment. No one was going to mistake Anderson for Ted Nugent, though I think they each killed and ate equal amounts of venison (OK-- that's enough weight jokes about pool Al. Glass houses...)
And before you argue that being on little indie labels and playing 200 nights a year to 200 people at a time is not the big time or "making it" and that my whole thesis for this entry is flawed, remember this; in 1989, NRBQ made a major label album for Virgin, was featured in Rolling Stone, Musician and Spin magazines, did a full world tour, co-headlined 5,000-10,000 seaters with Marshall Crenshaw, and placed several songs into soundtracks. That kind of press certainly cost their label millions. In the years before that, they had been on four other labels, three of which had gone out of business, and all but two of their previous albums were out of print. They hung in there, and they got their shot-- they just didn't have a hit.
So you can argue that NRBQ never made it because most people haven't heard of them, but they made 20 albums with other people's money, played thousands of shows, inspired hundreds of thousands of words of praise, and have been full-time professional musicians for 32 years and counting. In my book, that's hardly garageland. So you unknowns out there-- if you're good and you keep working, we'll hear you. Believe me, we're in continual search for you.
LINK: (Ridin' In My Car) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRK2o3EkOUw
* That said, I saw the 'Q at least six times, from a ski lodge to Wolf Trap pavilion and all kinds of places in between, and I heard a LOT of the same 25 songs every time. They had wildly eclectic nights, but they also had "let's do the ones they know" nights.