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NRBQ: The Unity of Man (and of former members)

Longtime critics’ darlings NRBQ has kept the music going in one form or another since before recording and releasing its self-titled debut album in 1969. While sales figures of NRBQ’s more than 30 albums haven’t made the group a household name, the Q’s rich blend of American musical forms – rock, jazz, blues, rockabilly and more – has earned them a loyal and enduring following.

Fall 2016 features two major events that should be of serious interest to anyone who’s ever enjoyed the music of NRBQ. Omnivore Recordings has compiled a 5CD box set of new, old, rare and archival NRBQ recordings called High Noon; the set is curated and compiled by the group’s founder/leader Terry Adams. Meanwhile, on October 20 at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta, a collective of former NRBQ members and musical associates will gather for an all-star benefit in support of Karen Staley, wife of original NRBQ drummer Tom Staley.

Karen Staley was recently diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer, but after doing their own research, the Staleys decided not to pursue the standard course of treatment. But alternative protocols aren’t always covered by health insurance plans, so Tom Staley has turned to friends and music lovers for help. The Staleys established a Gofundme campaign, and while that has been going well, the drummer felt that other strategies would be needed as well.

Staley says that the idea for a benefit concert “was a direct consequence of me just waking up one morning and thinking, ‘How can I make some money?’ And I thought, “You know, I should ask Al [Anderson] and Frankie [Gadler] if they would do a show to help me out.” Enlisting the help of Anderson (NRBQ’s guitarist 1971-1994) and the band’s original vocalist will, Staley hopes, attract NRBQ fans. Both men immediately agreed to help. “I built up the show around those two guys, and then tried to figure out who else we could get.”

In short order, Jim Bob Hoke also pledged to participate. Hoke has played on numerous NRBQ recordings over the years, and has also toured with the group. North Carolina musician Terry Anderson – composer of The Georgia Satellites’ 1986 hit “Battleship Chains” – also agreed to round out the group. The bill will also include sets by the Fenderbenders, Rodeo Twister and Agabus; the Hon. Ted Weldon will serve as Master of Ceremonies.

In addition to raising funds to offset the Staleys’ medical bills, the October 20 show is an opportunity to reunite friends and band mates who forged a long history together. Continuing the tradition established by the original Q’s lineup, the musicians won’t use a set list for the benefit show. Recalling his years with NRBQ (1968-1974), Staley says, “we never had a set list. When things were right and the love was flowing, and we were all on the same page, songs would just happen. It was beautiful. It was an improvisational jazz approach to playing rock and roll.”

Even though Staley hasn’t been a member of NRBQ in decades, he’s a fan of the group’s subsequent work, and remains a friend of Terry Adams, who still records and tours with a newer Q lineup. “Terry can ‘call’ a great show,” says Staley. “He knows. He can read the audience; he knows exactly what the vibe is.” One of NRBQ’s musical secrets onstage has been Adams’ insertion of subtle cues into the body of a song, hints that wordlessly let the players know what’s up next.

Other times, recalls Staley, “while the audience was applauding, Terry would just yell out [a song title], and nobody in the audience would be paying any attention. And we would just fall into it. It became seamless if you’re out in the audience; people would wonder, ‘How can they do this without a thought-out song list?’ Well, it was just because of Terry’s brilliance in calling the show.” Adams gives credit to his various band mates over the years. “The players in the band always put their whole selves into it and like being open: music and happiness first. None of them wants to play the same as the night before.”

Another defining NRBQ characteristic is the group’s eclectic nature. From the beginning, the lineup included accomplished musicians whose tastes varied widely. But those tastes all somehow combined into the Q’s singular brand of music. Adams reflects on the wide array of influences that has informed every NRBQ lineup. “Everyone comes from their own place musically and brings it in. But I always make sure that everyone’s listening habits are broadened. The direction of the band … that’s 100% my fault.”

NRBQ’s self-titled debut record – a collection of first takes – featured original songs alongside covers of tunes by jazz composer Carla Bley, bluesmen Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and Sun Ra’s “Rocket Number Nine.” That wide-ranging approach set the tone for the next 40-plus years of NRBQ music. “We never tried to be far out,” insists Staley. He notes that both the group’s original material and its sometimes offbeat choices of covers all made sense in context. “We just loved Sun Ra. We just loved Lonnie Mack. We loved Wilson Pickett. It’s the same energy; it all comes from the same place.” Adams makes a similar point in different words. “I’ve been thanked by people for opening up their minds to lots of other music,” he says, “but it’s strictly a byproduct.”

From NRBQ’s start, jazz pianist Thelonious Monk was a hero to Adams and his band mates. “The music of Thelonious had a big impact on me when I was a teenager,” he says. “I took a lot in, and heard him live many times, and needed to give it back.” That giving back took the form of Adams’ 2016 release Talk Thelonious, a re-imagining of songs from Monk’s catalog. Talk Thelonious is an Adams solo release in name only, as NRBQ’s current lineup is featured prominently throughout the album. A track from that disc, “Ruby, My Dear,” is included on High Noon. “It’s the first NRBQ recording that is orchestrated,” says Adams.

“NRBQ’s wide variety is something we’re not conscious of when playing,” he continues. “It’s just natural, organic and honest.” Without it, he believes, “we wouldn’t be who we are. It keeps us happy and fresh.” The five discs that make up the new High Noon box set serve as a kind of musical travelogue through NRBQ’s music. The first disc features recent and/or new music from the Q’s current lineup, featuring Adams, drummer John Perrin, bassist Casey McDonough, and guitarist Scott Ligon. “Scott and Casey are the featured vocalists,” says Adams, who won his own medical battle (stage 4 throat cancer) a few years ago.

Adams says that Ligon and McDonough “have great ideas and are great writers. John Perrin is among the best drummers I’ve played with, and he’s only been in the band one year. So the band is moving faster than ever.” He adds, “This is not a sales pitch; it’s the truth. Because all of us – from the beginning through now – are building on something that’s already beautiful.”

High Noon‘s four other discs take a chronological look at the Q’s music, from 1966 tracks cut by pre-NRBQ group The Seven of Us, through the band’s various collaborations with Carl Perkins and Captain Lou Albano. “The early days were pretty wild and loose,” says Adams. “Really creative, but also unorganized in every sense. Around ’74 a change happened when Al Anderson and Tom Ardolino and the Whole Wheat Horns signed on with me and Joey Spampinato. Al was already very popular, and that was a great lift for the band. We began to play constantly on tour, and that made us get better and better.”

Staley – whose drumming is featured on nearly all of High Noon‘s second and third discs – raves about the Q’s John Perrin. “In my opinion, that’s what the band’s been waiting for: that guy. He reminds me of the energy I had when I first started playing with the band.” He says that drummer Perrin is “really consistent, and he’s so interesting to listen to.” He singles Ligon out for praise as well. “The cat is just so talented and so dedicated to the spirit of NRBQ,” Staley says. “It’s what he wants to do in life. He has a chance to do it and he’s gonna relish every second.”

Staley left NRBQ in the mid 1970s. But there wasn’t some great falling out or anything, he says. “I was the first one to have a family. I don’t think I need to tell you that when you have that, the chemistry changes in a band. You’re thinking about your little boy that was just born, and now you gotta go on the road for a couple weeks. It caused a little bit of distance, because my allegiance was more towards the family. Eventually it got to that point where it was just a case of, ‘I just can’t do this.’”

He kept his hand in music, and began to focus on songwriting. Even though the specific list of songs is yet to be decided, the October benefit show just might feature a Staley original or two. “Terry Anderson may play drums and let me play acoustic guitar and sing one of my tunes.”

Tom Staley reflects on the legacy of NRBQ, the qualities that have made the group special through all its lineup changes. “It’s kind of a smorgasbord of music, and it was coming from a place that was just wide open,” he says. “When you’re open to what’s happening on the planet, it’s all unified.”

He laughs and adds, “I hate to be so deep and philosophical about it. But that’s really it. All of a sudden it hits you: Wow! You go out in the morning and what do you hear? I hear sweet birds singing, I hear car horns in the background. And it’s all music to my ears. It’s unity of the planet. All of these are sounds that are coming from life here on this planet. And, you know, that’s reflected in the music of NRBQ.” Staley refers to something that Donn Adams’ (Terry Adams’ brother, formative NRBQ figure and part of the Whole Wheat Horns) wrote on the liner notes of the Q’s first record: “The unity of music is imminent, as is the unity of man who created it.”

“We bring our own sound and style to the world,” says Terry Adams. “Some people may try to dissect our music. You know, ‘here’s where they got this or that.’ But that’s not what matters. We’re making something beyond that happen, and we’ve been doing it all along.” Adams sums up his own feelings about the music of NRBQ: “When people hear it and feel it, they’re never the same.”