Tuesday, May 11, 2010

SONGS #104-#116: At Yankee Stadium (Full Album)

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.


  1. Over the years Jeff and I have had a few bands that we've never been able to convince the other guy of. A recent example is my galling failure to convince Jeff about TV on the Radio. Jeff's long term inability to get me on the NRBQ train is a counter example. Jeff is absolutely nuts about NRBQ. I haven't done the math, but I think if you added up all of the songs from NRBQ on his top 20,000 it'd be close to 200. Yes, NRBQ makes up 1% of the greatest music of all time in Jeff's world. I bet there are more NRBQ songs on the list than a bunch of bands I like much, much better. I bet there are more NRBQ songs than Nirvana, Van Halen or Kinks songs, for example.

    So anyhow I decided to give this record another try. First song was "Ridin' in My Car" and I immediately recognized the song and the record. Every ten years or so I get confused and relisten to this record on Jeff's recommendation and am ever disappointed. This is an ok record by an ok bar band. That's about it really. Sorry to be a naysayer, but that's been my rx since 1990 when Jeff first pressed the vinyl version on me and I predict when I relisten to this record on Jeff's insistence in 2020 I will feel the same.

  2. WAY more Kinks than NRBQ-- you're way off in your NRBQ estimate. Plus, if a band releases 400 songs in a 35 year career, its chance of placing songs on the list is better than Nirvana's, who released something like 50 tracks total. Ignoring percentages in your argument? What are you, a politician?

  3. Andrew ClevengerMay 14, 2010 at 9:48 AM

    Before it changed formats, WHFS used to play "Wild Weekend" a lot, and I think Bonnie Raitt's cover of "Me and the Boys" was also in rotation.

    I had completely forgotten about this until Jeff mentioned the tour, but I'm sure I saw the NRBQ/Marshall Crenshaw tour, either at Wolftrap or Merriweather Post Pavillion (probably the former?). I remember liking them a lot, but not being blown away (I was probably too focused on Crenshaw, whom I loved at the time. Still do.)

    I have always had a soft spot for a bunch of their songs as a result (particularly "Riding in My Car" "I Want You Bad" and "It Was an Accident"). My mild fandom never inspired me to go out and buy an NRBQ record, tho. They were such chameleons that I never latched on to a particular sound that I liked. Maybe I should revisit Yankee Stadium!

  4. Where's my Halen post? I see you responded to the Kinks and Nirvana, but no explanation of how NRBQ is more represented than Van Halen. Van Halen for goodness sakes! BTW, your Nirvana explanation holds no water. The simple fact is that there is too much NRBQ on the list. So Nirvana has fewer tracks. NIRVANA IS MUCH BETTER! did you notice that I broke out the all caps AND the exclamation point? That's right, I'm going all caps on you NRBQ-boy. Don't make me break out the bold/italics in all caps combo, that might make you weep just by the sheer force of my font usage.

    BTW, do you know who will be more represented in my top 20,000 songs than NRBQ (assuming I ever make such a list?): The Romantics, the Divinyls, The Real Roxanne, Salt'n'pepa, and multiple other one/two hit wonders. Just sayin'!

  5. Please forgive the comment above. I had an affagato (a shot of espresso over a scoop of vanilla gelato) 30 minutes before I started typing and it appears I let the caffeine rush get the best of me. I sincerely apologize for everything except calling Jeff "NRBQ-boy." That actually seems to be fair enough I think.

  6. PPPS One last shot on NRBQ. Did a preliminary scan through your 2009 version of the 20k songs. Still utterly convinced there's too much NRBQ. Bands that have fewer songs on the list than NRBQ:

    Van Halen, Uncle Tupelo, Steve Earle, Spoon, Sonic Youth, Son Volt, Ryan Adams, Tv on the Radio (ONE SONG!), Rush, Rod Stewart, Ray Charles, Jay Z, Public Enemy, The Pogues, Outkast, Otis Redding, Modest Mouse, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Lucinda Williams, Lou Reed, Kanye West, Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash, John Lennon, James Brown, Iron and Wine, Guns ‘N’ Roses, Eric Clapton, Elvis Presley, Coldplay, The Cars, Built To Spill, Bright Eyes (One Song!), Blur, The Black Keys, Big Star, Beck, The Beastie Boys, The Beach Boys, The Band, The Allman Bros. Band, Aerosmith, AC/DC

    The list of bands above must include at least one (and probably several) acts that will make any rational reader say "Really? There are more songs by NRBQ than [fill in the blank here]?" I have no suggestion for how to fix it, except that you could let me loose on the NRBQ side and I predict some easy cuts.


    One final time--

    NRBQ has released 23 albums of original music, and 35 albums total-- approximately 250 unique songs and 400 performances. Therefore, I have about 20% of NRBQ's available catalog in my iPOD.

    Guess what? That's a LOWER percentage than EVERY BAND YOU LISTED with the exception of: Son Volt (are you really going to argue that their last four albums have been good?) TV On The Radio (you have outdated info-- lots more TV On The Radio these days, but still only about 15%) Bright Eyes (sucks-- I'm surprised I have one) Jay-Z (that one's on me) Johnny Cash (only because he released about 1000 songs) Guns N Roses (but only because of Chinese Democracy) Eric Clapton (and again-- your move to justify about 20 records in his catalog, Chuckles) and The Cars (really? The Cars? That's crucial to your argument? WHERE ARE THE ALBUM TRACKS FROM 1980s PANORAMA??? The funny thing is, I indeed HAVE deep album cuts from Panorama in the list).

    So, to sum up-- I indeed like almost all of these bands more than I like NRBQ, and included a greater percentage of their music in the list; thank you for pointing that out. Sadly, they made less music, so sometimes there are fewer tracks from them then we would all hope there to be.

    And I'm done. Put that in yer pipe!

  8. Just can't let this go. There is an absolute value to the number of songs on the list that has no bearing on what percentage of a band's output is on the list. Looking at a list of a person's favorite songs I think it is fair to count the number of songs by each band and assume that the more songs by a band, the more you like that band. There are probably only 15 acts that have more songs on your list than NRBQ and the bands listed above are all behind NRBQ. Who cares whether this is only 20% of NRBQ's output? When you list your favorite songs NRBQ is naturally pushing out other songs by better acts. I think it is crazy to like NRBQ more than the acts listed above. CRAZY. You would rather listen to the 200th best song by NRBQ than the 89th best song by Nirvana or the 25th best song by Jay z and I submit that is objectively incorrect. I do promise to give up here though, the list above speaks for itself.

  9. "There is an absolute value to the number of songs on the list that has no bearing on what percentage of a band's output is on the list."

    That might be true when talking about 500 songs, but 20,000? Come on-- the number gets so big that absolute value means someting else. If I know I'm going to eat 20,000 cookies in my life, I might throw 100 Chips Ahoy in there. If I'm only getting 500, then it becomes a totally different method of choosing.

    Back to White Lion-- they would make your Top 1,000, Top 500, Top 50 lists. It's a really different choice you're making putting that song in the third list. And so it is with NRBQ. Plenty of entires at 20,000. At 1,000? Far fewer.

    And now I'M done. Hopefully.