(Photo of Terry Adams by Robert Tobey)
Let me say right off that NRBQ is my favorite band. When I was a radio deejay on WRSI, I would back-sell their songs by saying either, “That was NRBQ, best band ever” or “NRBQ, the only band better than The Beatles.” Those hyperbolic catch-phrases were mostly intended to alert people to the brilliance of NRBQ, but on some level I believe those words. You have to stand for something in this life.
Saturday night, two days after Thanksgiving, NRBQ played the Academy of Music in Northampton, which had about half of its 800 seats filled. It was nice to see the Q play such a classy venue, but it wasn’t really the right place to see them. For one thing the show was dry- no beer, no wine. The Academy has a yearly limit on their one-day liquor permits they can obtain and for some reason they chose not to get one for NRBQ, who have often been referred to as “the best bar band in America.”
For their part, NRBQ put on a wonderful, many-splendored two-hour show. Terry Adams, the keyboard player and band-leader, served up a colorful cocktail of new songs, old favorites and oddball adventures: “Animal Life,” “Rain at the Drive-in,” “April Showers.” 32 songs in all. It was much like the good old days even though this fourth incarnation of NRBQ, features only one original member- Terry, who is 70. The new guys are a lot younger but actually not that new. Guitarist and singer Scott Ligon, age 48, has been playing with Adams for eleven years, bassist Casey McDonough has been in the band since 2011 and drummer John Perrin since 2015.
In any case, this current NRBQ carries on the glorious rock ‘n’ roll tradition of their beloved predecessors and it was heart-warming to hear Terry give shout-outs to “former members of the band.” Before playing Al Anderson’s “Help Me Somebody,” Steve Ferguson’s “Ain’t it Alright,” and Joey Spampinato’s “Mona,” Terry acknowledged his old band-mates. This small gesture was important to longtime fans because there were some disgruntled feelings in 2011 when Terry revitalized NRBQ without Joey. It is a complicated story, but in the long run, life is too short and the new band sounds great, so why quibble and squabble? Ain’t it alright?
What wasn’t alright at the Academy was the band-audience disconnect. The theater crowd just sat in their seats when the band was ripping into songs like the rave-up “Flat Foot Flewzy.” That’s not how you do NRBQ. You should be on your feet bopping to the music. I remember seeing the current NRBQ outside at Mass MoCA’s Solid Sound Festival in 2015 and the crowd started moving and grooving as one. The music had so much lift, so much rock ‘n’ roll spirit and heart that people started dancing in spite of themselves.
Equally problematic at the Academy, the stage lighting made it difficult for Terry Adams to see and interact with the crowd. Part of the dynamic at an NRBQ show is the mock-confrontational way Terry engages with the audience. In the middle of a song, as the guitarist is taking a solo, Terry will get up from his keyboards and walk out to the front of the stage and playfully taunt the audience, as the music roars on behind him. Hands on hips he will peer around, daring you, challenging you, looking to see what you brought to the party. Terry breaks the fourth wall and reminds the crowd that they are all in this together. He also breaks any assumption that the band is just here to please the audience. NRBQ is not your music monkey. They do not come to town to merely delight you by playing the hits. This is a different game, a different band.
Towards the end of the Academy show, NRBQ fired up “Rocket #9”, the angular Sun Ra chant. Terry walked over to play on his new toy, a seven-foot, fire-engine-red calliope topped with gleaming golden whistles of varying lengths. Originally calliopes were made out of train whistles and Terry’s instrument had that same 19thcentury carousel sound. The song itself was an avant-garde affair with lots of empty space and sudden stabbing bits, shards of music floating through dark space, challenging the audience and their pre-conceptions of musical entertainment.
When “Rocket #9” thankfully ended, Terry immediately launched into Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” on the calliope. After all the weird dissonance of “Rocket #9” the Stevie song sounded newly minted. It was like a miraculous gift of melody and warmth. Bassist Casey McDonough sang the song beautifully. Earlier Casey took the lead on a glowing version of the Beach Boys “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” that he had sung as part of Brian Wilson’s band on the Pet Soundstour in 2017.
After playing their biggest hit, “Ridin in My Car,” NRBQ left the stage to a standing ovation. When they returned the houselights came up and they encored with the rollicking “12 Bar Blues.” Now the audience was up dancing and it felt like a proper Q show. Guitarist Scott Ligon fired off one fabulous guitar run after another and the band and the crowd were together, united in rhythm. As the audience continued to sing the count-along chorus, “1, 2, 3, 4…” the band walked off.
I have always considered Terry Adams to be one of the artistic geniuses of the modern world, like a Picasso or Chaplin. His piano playing alone is beyond compare in its breadth and virtuosity. No one has ever fused rock and roll and jazz to such an astounding degree. And all along he has been the leader of arguably the best band ever. At the same time Terry is a marvelous comedian who combines theatrical piano-playing (Chico), blonde physicality (Harpo) and irreverent commentary (Groucho). Talking about the people gathered outside at the newly opened pot store in Northampton, Terry said, “It looked like the depression, people waiting in soup lines. And now the police are helping you get it.”
After the Academy show, I had a new, wild, idea that Terry acts like the Hindu deities. When you watch him take a solo he seems to be constantly creating and destroying like Brahma and Shiva. In the course of a solo he might create and destroy ten new songs based on the original song. And when I looked up the Hindu triumvirate online, I realized that Terry is also like Vishnu, the Preserver. He has preserved the life-affirming feel of rock ‘n’ roll, the real Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis swingin’ stomp that is tricky to pull off. And going further back Terry has kept Tin Pan Alley songs alive by giving them a swashbuckling kick: “Peanut Vendor,” “Music Goes Round and Round,” “Accentuate the Positive.” It’s like what Terry Adams and NRBQ called their comeback album in 2011- Keep This Love Goin’. That’s what they’re doing. That’s what they’ve always been doing.
Opening act Frank Manzi and his band of Lux Deluxxe guys sounded great with a strong set of Manzi originals like “Better Days,” and “Just to Hear You Breathe.” Other highlights from the NRBQ set included “Little Floater,” “Howard Johnson’s Got His Ho-Jo Working,” (with saxophonist Klem Klimek on lead vocals,) “Paris,” “I Want You Bad,” “Boozoo and Leona” (what a bridge by Terry!), “Get a Grip,” “Peanut Vendor,” “Why Do These Things Have to Be” (Terry solo piano) “Waitin’ on My Sweetie Pie”, and “Rock Around the Clock” (with drummer John Perrin playing hot guitar.)
Here’s a video of the current NRBQ playing in 2015 at Mass MoCA as part of the Solid Sound Festival. This excerpt of “Music Goes Round and Round” includes a killer piano solo by Terry Adams.