For 14 years, NRBQ has been one of the best kept secrets in rock 'n' roll. Despite accolades from sources as disparate as Carl Perkins, Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello, NRBQ has never had a hit and remains a club band to this day.
Those in on the secret, though, know that NRBQ can get to the heart of rock 'n' roll--its mix of genres, its irreverent humor, its romantic innocence, its craft, its impulsiveness--faster and surer than any band in any venue. One of NRBQ's most supportive towns has been Washington, and the group returns to the Wax Museum tonight.
After three years with no releases, NRBQ suddenly has three new projects. The group's 1972 album, "Scraps," an expensive collector's item since Kama Sutra let it go out of print, has been re-released (Rounder/Red Rooster 3055) with the original art and sequencing. NRBQ joins its old friend, saxophonist Gary Windo, for four cuts on Windo's new album, "Dogface" (Europa JP2011). Most important is the long-awaited appearance of an all-new NRBQ album on a major label: "Grooves in Orbit" (Bearsville 23817-1).
"Grooves in Orbit" finds NRBQ in an unexpectedly romantic mood, with Joey Stampinato crooning some lovely ballads. The middle of each side is filled with songs by coproducers Stampinato and Terry Adams.
When Adams resurrects the archetypal adolescent setting of "Rain at the Drive-In," he does so with equal measures of humor and affection. While many clever performers mine the debris of American pop culture for nostalgia and absurdity, NRBQ is more interested in the timeless qualities of supposedly disposable pop. Thus, Stampinato can sing "How Can I Make You Love Me," and make the plea as earnest and heart-wrenching as the Everly Brothers' ballads it resembles.
The album's catchiest originals are "A Girl Like That" by Adams and "I Like That Girl" by Stampinato. The Adams song takes a solid Beatlesque tune and pushes it with fuzzy guitar and buzzing keyboards into an urgent warning that his friend's girl is doing him wrong. The Stampinato song is a joyful bleat of infatuation with a typically NRBQ mix of Dixieland, country and AM rock. Adams' "My Girlfriend's Pretty" deftly employs a bossa nova arrangement with a smoky sax solo by Keith Spring and acoustic guitar variations by Al Anderson.
The album's biggest disappointment is the lack of compositions by Anderson, who delivers great vocals on the three cover tunes: "Daddy-O," "12 Bar Blues" and Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm."
Anderson's grizzly bear growl and rockabilly guitar licks give "12 Bar Blues" a contagious enthusiasm. When he sings, "Whether it's country music, modern jazz or southern soul, I like the rhythm of the 12 bar blues," he defines the scope and the passion of NRBQ's music.
As always, this NRBQ album features the punchy charts of the Whole Wheat Horns (Keith Spring and Donn Adams), while Windo and John Sebastian put in guest appearances. The most ambitious song is Adams' "When Things Was Cheap." Over a lazy boogie, the group vocals fondly recall a simpler time, ponder their own threatened world where "a button can be pushed by just one man," and plead, "be careful of this precious human cargo."
"Scraps" is not the best NRBQ album, but it's plenty of fun. It was the band's third album, but the first with Anderson, who joined Stampinato, the Adams brothers, singer Frank Gadler and drummer Tom Staley. Though they tend to go for the easy jokes and though the singing is a bit shaky, the songs bear the catchy melodies and joyful bounce of all NRBQ records. Highlights include Terry Adams' send-up of Chicago blues, "Howard Johnson's Got His Ho-Jo Workin' "; his slothful jazz-rock instrumental, "Tragic Magic"; his call-and-response soul shout, "Do You Feel It," and Stampinato's hook-laden Beatlesque love song, "It's Not So Hard."
The cuts with NRBQ are the best parts of Windo's "Dogface." Windo, who has recorded in jazz and rock settings, plays with seven bands on his first solo album.
He blows his sax over the crisp swing of the NRBQ rhythm section on two instrumentals--Adams' "Guard Duty" and Anderson's "Baxter," while Anderson lends a splendid lead vocal to Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "That's All."
This exuberant rhythm and blues workout is in reality an NRBQ recording with incidental support from Windo, who also employs the band on the title track, a chaotic jumble of off-key chanting and disconnected horn phrases. Unfortunately, this is typical of at least half the album. A 12-piece big band does recall the extravagant playfulness of the Carla Bley Band, however, on "Don't Be Cruel" and a dog-sounds original, "Hound."