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Are the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet the greatest bar band in the world or Middle of the Road geezer rock?


Mention "NRBQ" to some people, and they'll tell you the group is the greatest bar band of all time, one that ought to be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Others will tell you that the band -- family name the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet -- are little more than extremely competent noodlers, evoking myriad influences but never quite pinning down a sound of their own.

Formed in Miami in 1967 by keyboardist Terry Adams, guitarist Steve Ferguson, singer Frank Gadler, drummer Tom Staley and bassist/singer Joey Spampinato, the band released their self-titled debut in 1969 on Columbia Records, a musical Whitman Sampler that included rockabilly classics, bubblegum pop, and free-jazz freakouts in the tradition of Sun Ra. Ferguson subsequently left the group and was replaced by former Wildweeds guitarist Al Anderson. Gadler left next, and drummer Tom Ardolino replaced Staley in 1974, cementing a lineup that would remain in place for 20 years. After recording 1994's Message for the Mess Age, Anderson left NRBQ for a solo career, and was replaced by Joey Spampinato's brother Johnny.

The myriad lineup changes haven't appeared to faze the band's fans, however. As long as Adams and Joey Spampinato continue plugging in every night, the magic is deemed safe for another evening, especially given the large cadre of guest musicians the band has accumulated.

Having amassed a strong cult following over more than 30 years of performing and two dozen-plus albums, NRBQ's music functions like something of a one-band jukebox to their loyal fans. Toss in a cheeky DJ's predilection for telling groaner jokes and accepting requests, and you have a recipe for success. Or excess, depending on whom you ask.

"If I had my way, NRBQ would be declared our national band," says producer and musician Chris Stamey (Sneakers, dB's, Whiskeytown). "They are a living celebration of the exuberance of American music, from their intricate, detailed chromatic ballads to their no-holds-barred rockin' assaults to their encyclopedic knowledge of the musical history that preceded them."

"I am currently living in Austin, Texas, and haven't seen NRBQ in nine years," says writer Jim Caligiuri of the Austin Chronicle. "They just don't come to this part of the world. Before I moved to Texas, I lived in New York and was a huge fan. I saw them more times than I can count.

"Of course they deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," Caligiuri continues. "Few bands (can) play as wide a range of music -- rock, jazz, blues, pop, noise -- with so much love and energy. The main attraction to me, however, was their sense of humor. Going to an NRBQ show was fun! There was no set list, so the immediacy of the performance was unlike that of any other band, especially those that think noodling is a virtue. There was a connection between the audience and the band that made each show special. Their ability to perform almost any request on the spot was, at times, awe-inspiring. Sure, they were goofy, and some performances were better than others, but a combination of great pop tunes, superior musicianship, absurd sense of humor -- and the lack of anything approaching self-consciousness -- made them the best band in the land."

Others, however, say it's a generational thing, and that today's music scene, rich in variety, has rendered NRBQ something of a nostalgia act, one-stop shopping for the geriatric set.

"As a Gen-Xer and not a Baby Boomer, I have to confess that I've just never "gotten' NRBQ," says Jim DeRogatis, Chicago Sun-Times music critic and editor of the new book Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsider the Classics. "As far as I can tell, it's pretty much FYOWGM -- Fifty-Year-Old White-Guy Music. This is to say, these guys skillfully plagiarize, reference, and evoke myriad cool sounds from the era that most inspired a certain narrow slice of rock fandom, many of whom are now rock critics. The band does this with better taste (and more obscurity) than most other blatant nostalgia acts, but a nostalgia act it remains, and that's pretty much what it always has been."

Three other high profile writers contacted for this story (including a couple that have written for a magazine whose name rhymes with "Trolling Gnome") echo DeRogatis' comments. One called NRBQ the "sort of bar band that critics love and I find uninspiring," and two said they'd rather not discuss the band in print, following the old "If you've nothing nice to say" dictum.

Ask musicians, however, and you're likely to get a different answer. Over their long history, the band that couldn't be labeled has recorded for a lot of them -- Kama Sutra, Rounder, and Mercury, to name a few, as well as their own Red Rooster and Edisun.

Many of these, it seems, ended up in the hands of today's music-makers. In fact, Spirit House Records released an album called The Q People: A Tribute to NRBQ earlier this year, featuring songs by Yo La Tengo ("Magnet"), Steve Earle ("A Girl Like That"), Ron Sexsmith ("My Girlfriend's Pretty"), J Mascis ("I Want You Bad"), and even that noted bar-band aficionado SpongeBob SquarePants, who contributed the audio cartoon "Little Floater's Wild Weekend."

Avowed fan Stamey says that the song "And I Love Her," from his new record Travels in the South, is "a direct attempt to capture some of Terry's harmonic magic and Joey's abject, unabashed romanticism," and goes on to note that no matter what, he's going to keep trying to reach the lofty levels set by his idols.

And why not? The "New" part of their name may be a joke to some, but as 30-plus years in the business shows, NRBQ aren't going to stop creating and playing the music they hear in their head anytime soon, either.

Requests, anyone?

NRBQ play Amos' South End on Thursday, June 24

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