NRBQ – Turn On, Tune In – Review by John Apice
Recorded at Sirius XM & WFMU-FM the genre-busting NRBQ – New Rhythm & Blues Quartet (founded 1966) – continue to break new ground on this live double set Turn On, Tune In (Omnivore). It arrives Sept. 6th as a 21-song CD & DVD (of the WFMU show). It features founder/pianist/harmonica/live drums/vocals, Terry Adams, Scott Ligon (guitar/bass/vocals), Casey McDonough (bass/some guitar/vocals), & John Perrin (drums/organ). NRBQ has 22 studio LPs since 1969, 11 live LPs & 14 compilation LPs — a respectful diverse repertoire.
Through its tenure, NRBQ had 12 former members (3 passed away). While not a huge commercial success they share similarity with The Grateful Dead. Their notoriety is their live performances, a rabid fan base with famous artists, & they possess a high degree of spontaneity as they genre bend Tin Pan Alley, blues, jazz, pop & rock.
Up first: an obscure Goffin-King song “Don’t Ever Change” — a small sample of surprises chiseled into their musical stone. While vocals border on They Might Be Giants or The Proclaimers, rather than the Dead – NRBQ existed when those guys were in diapers. This unit is not slipshod, are highly polished, well-arranged & though they may not perform with a setlist they know who’s in the driver’s seat & who’s steering.
“Florida,” — definitely is worked out to maximum effect. This moves at a joyous vocal clip that even Jerry Garcia would enjoy. The instrumentation clings & while not in a Beach Boys realm the band rises above mediocrity with its inventiveness. Terry Adams is always consistent on piano. At times, almost Frank Zappa’s Mother of Invention inspired. Sample “Tragic Magic.”
On “Dr. Howard,” — the first signs of energy prove Phish must have listened to this band. Some believe NRBQ is just a jam band with good moments, with some hits & misses. But when they tackle Jimmie Driftwood’s “Wilderness Road,” they exemplify Americana. Not the best – but their effort is authentic. Terry’s harmonica, aching vocal is snake oil tonic. It’s not a novelty. They teeter in a Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show territory, but Hook was actually a great band. They had exceptional songs (“Years from Now”).
“Beautiful Lover,” has a memorable riff (co-written by Jake Jacobs of Jake & the Family Jewels). “Don’t Talk About My Music” chugs along in a Dave Alvin, Blasters tradition. The performances are stellar. “Can’t Wait to Kiss You,” sung in an ensemble Dead style is effective.
“Nature’s Going to Pay You Back,” is barbershop quartet mediocre. But Terry’s piano shines. Scott’s lead guitar slices in a dark Blasters manner. “Red’s Piano,” is a hotter track. My suggestion is to cover David Seville’s (Ross Bagdasarian) jazz piano piece “Almost Good.” That would be an ingenious segue. The Roaring 20’s high kick of “Queen’s Talk,” has clever vocalizing, guitar, jaunty piano, & dynamic drums. An early-Beatle-Knickerbockers-Buckingham’s influence is sweet with its Link Wray style guitar in “It Feels Good.” This band is never boring.
“That’s Neat, That’s Nice,” exemplifies NRBQ’s musicianship. A cover of the classic Beach Boys song “Don’t Worry Baby,” is credible but it enforces why The Beach Boys were The Beach Boys & no one else was. As for the oldie “Red River Rock,” it’s a well-played instrumental but the dept of energy says: Johnny & the Hurricanes needn’t worry.
I agree with Bob Brainen in the insert. NRBQ “…never jumped the bandwagon, never followed a fad, never coasted along.” An accurate assessment & quite a compliment.
What we celebrate isn’t a band that lasted over 50 years but a band ideal. Yes, it’s not the original band from 1966 but for a musical spirit to last that long – that’s something.
Old men with their toys – indeed.
Available here, the 1 hour 11-minute LP was produced by NRBQ: https://omnivorerecordings.com/shop/turn-on-tune-in/