Clubland: NRBQ’s new CD ‘We Travel the Spaceways’ bounds across decades
My rosy memories of the mid-e_SSRq70s include the fateful day my grandfather came home from Baystate West with an LP, its cover art full of jaunty stars.
“Carl Perkins and NRBQ,” it said in big letters. I didn’t know them. Pépère put the record on. The zooming groovy music kicked in, with playful lyrics that cleverly updated a famous nursery rhyme, which I caught immediately, not being so far away from nursery rhyme age myself.
I was loving this cool record already, then I read the back cover liner notes, which described NRBQ as, “Five guys who eat a lot of peanut butter, drink a lot of RC colas, and play a lot of joyous music.” They sounded like my kind of guys. I’d probably eaten peanut butter toast and cola for lunch that very day.
Of course things change, people grow up. My grandfather and original ’Q guitarist Steve Ferguson have passed on. The “five guys” lineup featured on that record was a short-lived phenomenon, wild lightning in a weird and funky bottle.
But one of those five guys has stayed the same unpredictable course for all these years: pianist Terry Adams, a founding member who’s seen NRBQ through a number of lineup changes. The most drastic one came in 2011 when, after the existing ’Q lineup had been on a long hiatus, various circumstances made Adams start a new version of the band, featuring the then-current players in his own Terry Adams Rock & Roll Quartet — guitarist/vocalist Scott Ligon, drummer Conrad Choucroun and bassist/vocalist Pete Donnelly (who decided to leave the band last September and has been replaced by Casey McDonough).
The revamp didn’t make every fan entirely happy, but I thought the “New Q” put out a wonderful record (“Keep This Love Goin’ ”) that had a spirit that hearkened back to NRBQ’s heyday, with a rejuvenated melodic passion and a new soulfulness in some of the lyrics.
The band’s newest album was recorded live in Bearsville, N.Y., in April 2011, entitled “We Travel the Spaceways.” The guys also travel through time, since the set list bounds around decades of ’Q history, with tips of the hat to two of Adams’ eternal inspirations, Sun Ra (who wrote the title track) and Thelonious Monk (the guys do a fun run through his Latin-esque classic “Bye-Ya”). Those songs and others feature big percussion from big-hearted Tom Ardolino, NRBQ’s beloved and uniquely dynamic drummer from ’74 - ’07, making his last recorded appearance.
More than half the record highlights Adams’ pop songwriting, which works magic with an effectively placed chord or modulation. “The One and Only” is from 1989’s “Wild Weekend,” an album that sounds dated today but the song itself is timeless, and those plucky tones of Adams’ clavinet are an old friend. “Get a Grip” rides a clucking groove that’s as awesome now as it was in 1970 when Adams and Ferguson collaborated on the tune, and Ligon goes for his own take on the firework-filled guitar pickin’ of Ferguson and, later, Al Anderson.
Like nearly every NRBQ concert (no matter what the lineup), it’s all over the map, with moments that threaten to fall right off the map. But a friend once said how he loves to hear deejays on the radio make mistakes, because it’s proof “there’s a real human being running things.” I feel the same about Adams and NRBQ. Some things work, some don’t, but the music is alive, in the moment.
And the songs on “Spaceways” are a good highlight reel for Adams’ solo records of the latter half of the 2000s: ”She’s Got Everything” (from 2009’s “Holy Tweet”), which has one of his trademark colorful choruses; the wiggly hoedown “Crazy 8’s” (from the album of the same name), which could be incidental music from a “Flintstones” episode or, minus the e_SSRqQ’s loopy swing, easily refitted as jaunty Nintendo music; the Monk-ish off-kilter blues number “Outta Here” (from 2007’s “Rhythm Spell”); and the sweet “Here I Am,” a highlight from that last e_SSRqQ record.
Stuck in there is “Feelin’ Good,” a twang-stompin’ cover of a J.B. Lenoir blues tune. It’s a seemingly goofy relative of the earlier lineup’s version of the Chipmunks’ “Things We like To Do,” with Adams barking “I want to feel good!” and then following up with random personal examples like, “Sometimes I want to rent a movie! Watch ‘Rockford Files!’ ” But his voice is on the ragged side, and you remember that he’s been through Stage 4 throat cancer. And it didn’t stop him, and he continues to make great songs and play shows with high spirits. Damn right, he wants to feel good. The song’s funny, but he’s not kidding. And that groove and that emotion might make you feel good, too.
NRBQ plays its first show of 2013 at the Bull Run in Shirley tonight at 7:30. For information, visit www.NRBQ.com.