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Ludlow Garage 1970

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Album Review

Right out of the box NRBQ were a different kind of band. Their self-titled 1969 debut album opened with back-to-back covers of Eddie Cochran's rockabilly classic "C'mon Everybody" and Sun Ra's exploratory jazz adventure "Rocket #9," and things only got weirder from there. Very few people got it at first, but from the start "the Q," as they're often called, garnered a cult following that cherished their anything-except-crap-goes approach to music making. Wildly unpredictable, often chaotic, jaw-droppingly inventive and non-stop gobs of fun, NRBQ quickly became one of those you-have-to-see-them-live-to-understand-their-greatness bands that never quite managed to capture their particular genius in a studio setting. In keyboardist Terry Adams and guitarist Steve Ferguson, NRBQ boasted writers of stunningly eclectic (probably the word most often applied to NRBQ) taste and each member of the band — which also included at that time vocalist Frank Gadler, bassist Joey Spampinato, and drummer Tom Staley — was a virtuoso who didn't need to prove his virtuosity; and all were natural showmen who didn't need to strut to hold an audience's attention. NRBQ, even at this early stage (the band was still going strong more than 35 years later, with Adams and Spampinato still aboard), possessed an uncanny ability to handle any kind of music thrown at them. In 1970, that should have meant long guitar and drum solos, pretentious lyrics, a lot of preening and general bombast, but NRBQ were the anti-Woodstock and had no interest in falling in line with convention. Steeped in everything from deep soul to out-there jazz to roots rock & roll to harmonic pop to whatever oddball stuff came into their orbit, NRBQ shed rock's heft, threw their collective influences into the hopper, shuffled them around and created something new and refreshingly original — and that approach has never been altered. This January 1970 concert recording found the original Q — augmented, as they have often been, by horn players Donn Adams (Terry's brother) and Keith Spring — in sizzling form at Cincinnati's Ludlow Garage. It's circulated among the faithful for years but the official release is a stunning reminder of just how sweet fate can be — that such like-minded players (hailing from Kentucky, the Bronx and Miami) could not only serendipitously find one another, but use their collective the-hell-with-preconceptions attitudes and encyclopedic discographical knowledge to their advantage is a blessed thing. At Ludlow, on a bill with blues guitar master Albert King, NRBQ unleashed all of their madness on a crowd undoubtedly comprised of those who'd already been indoctrinated, those who'd soon be bowing at their altar, and those who'd spend the set scratching their heads. After all, this was a band that slid easily from a tough but smooth take on the Falcons' pre-soul, gospel-esque ballad "I Found a Love" right into Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Here Comes the Whistleman," and later on followed up "Ida," co-written by Terry Adams and jazz artist Carla Bley (the latter also appearing on that debut album), with the old Hank Ballard R&B stomper "Finger-Poppin' Time." And a band who, midway through their set, snapped off a string of half-a-dozen songs ranging in length from under a minute to just over two, unheard of in the era of the Fillmores. As musicians, the Q were peerless — you can hear the template for the secret behind the band's long run in the looseness that characterizes their playing here. Whether covering Little Richard's ripping "Rip It Up," the Billy Stewart soul ballad "Sitting in the Park," or hammering through a nine-minute epic expansion of Terry Adams' "Kentucky Slop Song," in which the horns take off on a Dixieland-gone-crazy ride, these guys never fail to keep things lively. Following a "Rocket #9" opener even more extraterrestrial than the studio version, Ferguson, in his own "Flat Foot Flewzie" (also from the first album), demonstrates how a guitar solo can be both economical and inspiring, while Adams' Thelonious Monk-like keyboard fills exhibit both a strange randomness and a consummate understanding of his instrument's possibilities. Staley's drumming is muscular yet a bit loopy (in a good way) and Spampinato's bass provides a solid but melodic anchor. Gadler, meanwhile, proves a commanding singer who avoids rock clichés. A year later, changes would begin within the lineup, and by the mid-'70s Gadler, Ferguson and Staley were all gone, and NRBQ became the long-running quartet of Adams, Spampinato, guitar giant Al Anderson, and drummer Tom Ardolino. But that's another story for another time. This Ludlow show is the earliest official live Q on record, and as such is an essential document, not to mention one kickin' set of live music.


Formed: 1967 in Miami, FL

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Often called "the world's greatest bar band," NRBQ are that rare group that's eclectic, stylistically innovative, and creatively ambitious while also sounding thoroughly unpretentious and accessible. At its best, NRBQ's music casually mixes up barrelhouse R&B, British Invasion pop, fourth-gear rockabilly, exploratory free jazz, and dozens of other flavors while giving it all a stomp-down rhythm that makes fans want to dance and expressing a sense of joy and easy good humor that comes straight from...
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