Music from the spheres
Meet NRBQ, the world’s best rock ‘n’ roll band. No kidding.
Listen: For more than 30 years, the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet—better known as NRBQ—has been captivating audiences with its skewed vision of rock ‘n’ roll as cartoon music from the spheres. All hopped up with caffeinated rockabilly jolt, but not rockabilly; all shot through with the free democratic spirit and forward motion of jazz, but not jazz; often tarted up with the bittersweet gingerbread of pop, but not pop—what is it, then?
“Some bands go for the body,” says Terry Adams, NRBQ’s moon-faced occasional frontman, principal composer and keyboard player. “Some singers go for the heart, and others go for the intellect, and [some even] go for the spirit. We want it all.”
Credit the group’s remarkable eclecticism to its four members who, Adams insists, each had a clean receiver and antenna when they tuned in to music as young, impressionable listeners. “When you really hear music,” he says, “from humans rather than [from] some kind of a business concept, then you know what you’re dealing with.”
Adams tends to couch his wisdom cryptically. Perhaps NRBQ is a parallel-universe Beatles, but it’s a parallel universe where humanity breathes nitrous oxide instead of oxygen, where Sun Ra is God and Heckle and Jeckle are his apostles. This band may be a little too preciously irreverent for a certain cable-TV channel’s Behind the Music segments, but it possesses one of rock ‘n’ roll’s more enduring story lines—although there aren’t any “choked on vomit” ratings-grabbers in its annals.
The Q, as its rabid fan base calls it, formed in 1967 in Miami, when Louisville native Adams and former singer-guitarist Steve Ferguson hooked up with bassist Joey Spampinato from the Bronx. Over the years the lineup has changed, but Adams and Spampinato are still together, with drummer Tom Ardolino and Spampinato’s brother Johnny—who replaced longtime guitarist Al Anderson seven years ago—completing the lineup.
“I was around from the beginning,” corrects Johnny Spampinato, who has followed Joey’s exploits with the Q from jump street. “And it’s funny for me to even picture myself doing this band, really. Tom Ardolino and I are in the back seat of the car, and we’re looking at each other, and we’re going, ‘Remember when we were watching the band and thinking this band’s great?’ “
Ardolino, the next-newest member, joined NRBQ 27 years ago. “We don’t know what else to do,” he admits."We’re stuck.”
Which is to say that—like some vintage jazz musicians—these guys could probably swing this stuff in their sleep.
Not that anyone’s sleeping. Although the group has, over the years, assembled a solid oeuvre in the studio-album department, the Q’s real strong suit is its incendiary live shows
One caveat, though: NRBQ’s freewheeling shows aren’t quite as spontaneous as they used to be, when the band would invite audience members to put written song requests in a wooden box with question marks painted on it. If a song got drawn, the Q would have to play it. “I used to like that era,” Ardolino recalls. “We stopped it because we always kept getting the same requests. It’ll always be ‘Jailhouse Rock.’ The same things kept coming up. It wasn’t as much fun, so we stopped it.” He pauses, then adds: “Maybe it’s time to bring it back.”
And there’s NRBQ’s secret: It’s that "it wasn’t fun, so we stopped it" attitude that has kept this band going strong for some 33 years. While the Q clowns around, and while there may be elements of high kitsch at work in its music, at the core is the same spirit you used to find in Duke Ellington’s longtime musicians. Is NRBQ a band of beatific jazzheads masquerading as a Beatlesque pop combo, or merely four guys who don’t know any better?