Venerable NRBQ caps big year of releases with 'In • Frequencies' rarities album
In • Frequencies trailer
Last week’s release of NRBQ’s In • Frequencies was the climax of an extraordinarily fruitful year for the band, pandemic touring shutdown notwithstanding.
It followed the recent limited edition CD release of NRBQ at the Ardmore Music Hall 2015, a live set recorded in 2015 at the Ardmore, Pa. rock venue with current members of the venerable “Q” and guests including Sun Ra Arkestra’s Marshall Allen and Danny Thompson. Q-related titles out so far this year also include the band’s early lead vocalist Frank Gadler’s first album Cause of You, and a reissue of the legendary Shaggs’ second album Shaggs Own Thing (1982), which NRBQ’s Terry Adams produced.
Still to come before the end of the year are a new album from NRBQ’s current guitarist Scott Ligon and bassist Casey McDonough’s band Flat Five; original Q guitarist Steve Ferguson’s Blue Ice of Winsted; a vinyl reissue of Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson’s 1992 album Johnnie B. Bad, and a new Sun Ra Arkestra album.
And to top it off, Spanish publisher La Produktiva Books—new literary sister company to La Produktiva Records—has issued the first-ever book about NRBQ, ¿Quiénes son NRBQ?: La banda que toca lo que le da la gana.
But the new In • Frequencies is the centerpiece of NRBQ’s remarkable run of releases, and the latest in a steady series of original and reissue Q titles on Omnivore Recordings—notably including reissues of the band’s self-titled 1969 album and 1977 fifth album All Hopped Up, and the five-disc 2016 High Noon--A 50-Year Retrospective. Setting it apart, In • Frequencies is the first-ever collection of rare NRBQ tracks and outtakes—in the words of liner notes writer M.C. Kostek, “great lost songs from a lifetime of music.”
Indeed, the 16 choice tracks on In • Frequencies provide a perfect companion piece to the High Noon set in spanning the entire 50-plus years’ existence of the singular band whose acronym stands for New Rhythm & Blues Quartet.
“When our friends at Omnivore asked for a ‘rarities album,’ we readily agreed,” says the venerable band’s leader, keyboardist and founding member Terry Adams—the only original member still in the band.
“There were no studios open because of the virus--but there were plenty of good-sounding NRBQ recordings on the shelves already. So when these songs surfaced on the tapes, I had to say, ‘What’s a nice song like you doing on a tape like this?’”
Nice songs, for sure, and full of the fun that has marked The Q live and on record since the beginning—and has made the band, in all its configurations, treasured by fans and peers alike. The live version of Elvis Presley’s chart-topping hit “Too Much,” which was taped at the Pyramid Arena in Memphis in 1994, even garnered astonished respect from none other than Presley’s celebrated lead guitarist Scotty Moore.
“It was a lot of fun,” recalls Adams. “It was a big Elvis Presley tribute show, and every time I settled on a song to do, they said it was already promised to another artist. I’d planned on doing ‘Mystery Train’—with some added mystery--but had to think of another song. So on the way there, just two hours outside of Memphis, I got an idea for an arrangement for ‘Too Much’: making it a duet, and honoring Scotty’s solo.”
It was an occasion where the quartet was augmented by a horn section.
“My brother Donn [a trombonist who has served The Q as part of its occasional Whole Wheat Horns section] and I always laughed like crazy for Scotty’s solo on the original [which opens with thick, rapid-fire chording]. I called saxophonist Jim Hoke and asked him to score that solo for three horns—Jim, David Gordon, and Sun Ra Arkestra’s Tyrone Hill: Jim had to rush to catch a bus from Nashville and scored it on the way to Memphis. When Scotty himself heard it he came over shaking his head and laughing, and said, ‘Well, it took three of you to do it.’ It turned out that he had always been embarrassed by it, and that Elvis used to tease him about it.”
Adams also cites “We’ll Make Love,” a live NRBQ gem written by guitarist Al Anderson that somehow never made it on an album until now, via a performance recorded in 1976 at Trinity College.
“I remember having more fun than anything playing it on stage,” says Adams. “We always had a lot of fun back there while Al was singing his song.”
As for bassist Joey Spampinato’s “Love Came to Me,” which appeared as a studio recording on the 1999 album NRBQ, the track was performed that year during a live morning radio show at WDET-FM in Detroit, and as Adams rightly notes, “it’s too good of a song to only have one version of.”
Another noteworthy live performance on In • Frequencies is “It’s a Wild Weekend,” which comes from a 1987 soundcheck at the famed Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, R.I. Featuring the band’s lyrics and an original bridge to the Rockin’ Rebels’ 1963 hit instrumental “Wild Weekend,” a studio take of the modified tune became the titletrack of The Q’s 1989 Wild Weekend album.
But an especially fun recording for Adams is “Orioles,” which was suggested by an NRBQ fan who knew that the Baltimore Orioles might need a song. Both Adams and Spampinato submitted a song, with Spampinato’s, “Baseball in Baltimore,” surfacing in 2002 on the Music’s Been Good to You album.
“Recording it was fun,” recalls Adams. “When I did the vocal part of calling out names of players, Joey could hardly take it because it wasn’t literal. He wanted the names of players who were actually on the team instead of others like Willie Mays and Don Drysdale—and Frankie Gadler and Joseph Spampinato! It was fun for me though, and besides, I don’t think anyone stays on any team anymore. Baseball fans have to be careful who they’re loyal to.”
NRBQ fans, on the other hand, have been rewarded for their loyalty throughout the long and extraordinary history of a band that continues to surprise with every performance and release.
“As a member of the band, I get to hear an awful lot of stuff that other people don’t have access to,” says guitarist Ligon. “But I’m hearing most of these tracks for the first time.”
He singles out the lovely “Sho’ Need Love,” a 1970 song recorded by NRBQ’s offshoot band The Dickens, that was released in 1970: “It’s almost too good to be true! It’s also hard to believe that I had never heard Terry’s ‘Get Real’ [recorded in 1983 and previously unreleased] or ‘Let Me Tell You ’Bout My Girl’ [cut in 1974, during the brief time when both Anderson and the late Ferguson were in the group, and also unreleased]” until this collection came together."
"You think you know a person!” Ligon continues, then adds, “But ‘April Showers’ is my sentimental favorite. The piano break is unreal. The singer ain’t bad either.”
The singer, of course, is Ligon, on the cover of the 1921 pop standard that The Q recorded for the soundtrack of the 2018 movie Change in the Air. One of its music directors, incidentally, was the late Hal Willner, the longtime music director for Saturday Night Live, and a beloved music producer whose eclecticism matched the band’s.
Willner enlisted NRBQ’s participation in his acclaimed That's The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk and Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films multiple-artist concept albums.
“NRBQ is the Mount Olympus of rock and roll,” he wrote in the At the Ardmore CD jacket, hailing the band as a national treasure and testifying that “they make me so damn happy!” In all the group’s configurations, he added, it “consistently discovers real musical light in the darkest of souls.”
“The live album should get your spirits up,” observes Adams, “but one thing I wanted to do with Omnivore and In • Frequencies was make sure it comes out before the election—in the hopes of inspiring people not to be so depressed, but get out and take action!”
“That’s not the reason why we do music, or what the music is about—but I hope there’s an undercurrent there.”