The latest version of the veteran odd-rock band, live and wonderfully weird.
NRBQ started up in 1967, making it a band almost as vintage as, say, the Rolling Stones. But unlike its theoretical contemporaries, NRBQ could never become one of those rock dinosaurs—a band trapped by its past, forced to repeat “Satisfaction” or “Start Me Up” until even old people think it’s a bit much.
Nope. NRBQ is a little band, a band many folks have heard of (or even heard in concert) but with not one hit song and not even really a defining album. Instead, this is a band defined by brilliant, eclectic live shows, but ones built not on self-indulgent jamming but on tasty morsels of great songs and a stylistic range that takes your breath away.
In 2012, NRBQ’s line-up contains only one member of the pre-2004 band—the singer, songwriter and Clavinet master Terry Adams—but its spirit lives on clearly. We Travel the Spaceways is from a 2011 live show in Bearsville, NY, and it catches the group in its madly varied glory. The title track is a famous tune by the jazz fantasist and avant-garde figure Sun Ra. The group also assays “Bye-Ya” by Thelonious Monk over a tub-thumping groove, and it even covers the old Claude Thornhill theme song “Snowfall”. But no jazz record this, as unique and fine as these jazz adaptations may be.
There is Beatle-rific pop-rock; lick-heavy groove tunes; odd, almost 12-tone-ish piano music; roots-rock shit-kicking songs; harmonically complex ballads; and even fairly simple blues rockers. Which is to say, this is an utterly typical set by NRBQ. Throw in some saxophone solos, leaven with loosey-goosey vocals—and don’t neglect either humor or sincerity.
The question for fans of the Q, if they haven’t seen the band in a while, is whether this is still really NRBQ. After all, Terry Adams would seem to be the only “real” member these days, and he was basically touring with this band a while back without calling it “NRBQ”—so what is the actual product here? And if it’s true that Adams was in many ways the Q’s backbone, he was also always their backbone of eclectic weirdness—the guy bringing into the band songs like “We Travel the Spaceways”, for example. So, fans might wonder, is this album NRBQ set wildly loose?
As if to reassure, the first track is a hummable lovely from 25 years ago, the catchy “The One and Only” from the pen of Adams, yes, but also the departed Joey Spaminato whose inimitable vocal delivery turns out to be . . . fairly imitable by one of the new members of the band. Of course, Adams’ Clavinet powers the whole delightful thing, and Scott Ligon’s guitar turns out to be a jazzy, round-toned treat on a brief solo. Spaceways sounds just like NRBQ from the start.
And the old NRBQ did weird stuff too, so when the second track is the Sun Ra tune, you should be ready for it as well, with some “out” soloing by Klem Klimek on tenor saxophone and splashy acoustic piano that dances over the arrangement’s hook-like ostinato bass line. The other jazz tunes function similarly, with Monk’s instrumental “Bye Ya” benefiting from a two-drummer groove attack (veteran Q drummer Tom Ardolino guests here and on three other tracks along with the new guy, Conrad Choucroun) and allowing generous solo space for percussion. “Snowfall” is a pretty song, but it gets a funky bass line that is doubled by guitar and a harmonica lead, making it sound almost like a post-modern theme to a 1960s cowboy TV show. Weird, right? That’s NRBQ, right there.
Yet the sunshine is rarely too far away. “Here I Am” is new song by Adams and Ligon that sounds like it could have been penned by Lennon-McCartney in 1965, including some charming “oooooh”s and a gentle near-surf beat, with the vocal reaching up to strain gently in the third verse. “Yes, Yes, Yes” is even better, an Adams tune that starts with a tricky solo piano passage, blossoms into a tender ballad, and then morphs on the bridge into something knottier, leading to a strange and even disturbing synth solo that—by dint of sheer peculiarity—turns out to be perfect. Because when NRBQ gets tender it just about breaks your heart (“Ooh, I want you to know how I feel . . . Ask me do I love you? Do I? Yes, yes yes”) and then they throw in a smirk. It’s exactly why rabid fans love them so and, of course, exactly why they’ve never really made it big.
To round out the proceedings, there are other treats and random acts of musical fun. “Feelin’ Good” is an old blues tune on which Adams rants about getting high and going to Hawaii and watching “The Rockford Files” in between cleanly harmonized choruses. “Get a Grip” is a popping rocker that sets Ligon loose for some rockabilly fun. “She Knows How to Rock Me” is a straight-up blues from Willie “Dr. Feelgood” Perryman—and it’s about a perfect NRBQ set-closer here: just rootsy good times that make a great virtue of the band being both very good and very loose.
And that’s a fine description of this recording from NRBQ. This is a very very amazing band, still, that makes a great virtue of sounding utterly off-the-cuff. The voices can be sweet, but mostly they’re kind of ragged. The playing can be tightly perfect, but mostly it sounds like a live groove in a small theater—exactly the kind of show you wish you’d been at.
For NRBQ fans, being at those shows was always what it was about. And with We Travel the Spaceways you can be at a show again. One of the truly legendary Q shows? Eh, who can even tell any more? They were all good, and apparently still are.