Joey Spampinato co-founded and played bass for NRBQ, a foursome known for their eclectic sets and high-energy live performances. The first two songs on the band’s debut release were written by rockabilly pioneer Eddie Cochran and avant-garde jazzbo Sun Ra! That reveals how diverse their influences were. Spampinato is also a first-class singer and songwriter whose self-penned songs are as strange and wonderful as the group’s selections of covers.
The original NRBQ lineup lasted 40 years and garnered tons of fans from across the globe, including Brits Keith Richards (who hired Joey to play bass behind Chuck Berry in the concert/movie tribute Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll), Paul McCartney, and Eric Clapton. In addition, the quartet’s songs have been successfully recorded by American acts as different as John Prine, Widespread Panic, and Yo La Tengo.
Joey’s been sick. To help pay the bills brought on by his health-related issues, a stellar roster of artists has recorded 14 of Spampinato’s songs initially recorded by NRBQ for a benefit album. The result, A Sweet Relief Tribute to Joey Spampinato, displays the wide range as a songwriter and the lovely goofiness of his talents. (Here’s more information about Sweet Relief Musicians Fund.) Spampinato himself can be heard on the album’s last track, “First Crush”, in a duet with his wife Kami Lyke.
While the charity record benefits a good cause, the quality of the material and their performances make this a worthy purchase in and of itself. The songs themselves work as a highlight reel of NRBQ’s history. It’s appropriate then that the first cut itself features the band’s lead vocalist, Al Anderson. His take on “You Can’t Hide” that NRBQ first recorded on their initial 1969 release captures the song’s twangy charms. Its off-kilter rhythms and house party vibes still hold up today as a perfect track for young people to dance and drink with. It’s a kegger just ready to happen.
Other highlights include Bonnie Raitt’s (backed by NRBQ) bluesy rendition of “Green Lights” from 1978’s At Yankee Stadium, Los Lobos’ jamming “Every Boy, Every Girl” from 1987’s God Bless Us All, and Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale’s sweet Everly Brother-style harmonies on “How Will I Know” from 2013’s Smiles. Vying for strangest tracks are Robbie Fulks rural gulping on the morality take “Chores” from 1979’s “Kick Me Hard”, and magicians’ Penn and Teller’s spoken word spiel “Plenty of Somethin’” from 1997’s You’re Nice People You Are.
The most rockin’ cuts would include Ben Harper (with Keith Richards, Charlie Musselwhite, Benmont Trench, Don Was, and Don Heffington’s rollicking “Like a Locomotive” from 1989’s “Wild Weekend”. Also, the Nils featuring Chris Spedding sloppily pump up the volume on “That’s Alright” from 1997’s All Hopped Up. In contrast, She & Him offer a toned-down “How Can I Make You Love Me” from 1983’s “Groove in Orbit”. Steve Forbert’s sensitive tribute “Beverly” from 1986’s Uncommon Denominators works as a folk-type love song.
NRBQ have released dozens of albums. The songs here offer just a small sampling of the band’s and Spampinato’s output. While the reasons for this album’s release are sad ones, and we hope that Joey recovers, if the record introduces new listeners to the music, it will serve a worthwhile function outside of its fundraising efforts.