NRBQ was, and is, a cult fave. I know. I went underground to see them.
The news that NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino died on Friday night reminded me of those long-ago gigs in Madison, Wisconsin. It was the mid-1980s. WORT, our local indie, free-form radio station, was playing NRBQ in advance of a show. The message, essentially, was “This stuff is OK, but you really ought to see them live.”
So I went down to Headliners, which was a music club built below street level. Situated next to the Church Key, a cramped bar in an old church, Headliners was more spacious. You probably could squeeze 1,000 people into it. NRBQ drew a nice crowd for a college town, but nothing close to capacity.
My lingering memory is not so much NRBQ’s songs, but its loose, joyous, energetic and irreverent stage presence. NRBQ played tunes from all kinds of genres. They also made the audience part of their show, happily fielding requests.
Some 20 years later, NRBQ played on a side stage at a big outdoor festival here in Green Bay. There might have been 20 people in the audience, tops, but we got the same kind of show I saw at Headliners years before. I found the following about that Green Bay show, posted last year on an NRBQ bulletin board. I don’t know who wrote it, but it’s accurate:
“It was an odd gig since no one in the audience seemed to know who NRBQ was. We talked to the guys after the 1st gig and when Terry (Adams) asked where the audience was, we told him that people seemed to be more into the Beatles cover band playing on another stage. Tommy said ‘Well, maybe we should play more Beatles songs!’ The 2nd night, sure enough, they played 3 Beatles covers … and everyone loved them.”
There aren’t a lot of NRBQ records in the racks behind me. They just don’t measure up to the live shows.
Here, though, is one track that captures a little bit of what NRBQ was like on stage. “Time for the box!” means it’s time to pick something from the Magic Box, which sits on stage and is stuffed with fans’ requests for covers.
“North To Alaska,” NRBQ, from “Kick Me Hard,” 1979. It’s out of print, but a 1989 CD release with extra tracks is available digitally. They’re accompanied by the Whole Wheat Horns — trombone player Donn Adams and sax player Keith Spring — on this cut.
This, of course, is a loosey-goosey cover of the old Johnny Horton song. One of those extra digital tracks is a loosey-goosey cover of “Spinning Wheel.”
Photo: Al Anderson, Tom Ardolino, Terry Adams and Joey Spampinato from the back cover of the “At Yankee Stadium” LP from 1978.