Walk into a record store -- one of those franchised, mall-based mega shops -- ask 25 customers if they've ever heard of NRBQ, and chances are you won't find three who have. Still, the group continually gets tagged as "one of the world's greatest bands," a description that has followed it for over 30 years.
It's a daunting label. Factor in the band's lack of commercial success, and the kid picking up that DMX CD may wonder just what the big deal with NRBQ is. These days, the group itself wonders the same thing.
"There are so many bands out now," says drummer Tom Ardolino. "We used to play a lot more colleges and stuff, but now there are so many college groups, younger bands, that they like and listen to. They just can't figure us out."
No one really has. Not the record companies. Not the program directors. Not even the fans (which include such luminaries as R.E.M., Elvis Costello, and the Rolling Stones) or the press, supporters of the group for most of the time since its debut album was released in 1969. NRBQ (the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet) is hard to categorize. It plays a funky brand of roots rock, spiced with jazzy and jokey qualities -- something like Phish for the pre-Net generation.
"We don't know," reiterates Ardolino when asked why commercial success has eluded the band. "All we can do is to keep doing it. We don't know what else to do."
And Ardolino literally means that. In 1974, he joined the group, which at the time included keyboardist Terry Adams, bassist Joey Spampinato, and guitarist Al Anderson (since replaced by Spampinato's brother Johnny), right out of high school. Last year the foursome celebrated its 30th anniversary in a big way. There was a star-studded two-night shindig at New York City's Bowery Ballroom and the release of a self-titled album, the Q's first proper studio effort in five years (there was a children's record, You're Nice People You Are, in 1997, that the band thinks of as "just another album," though others may disagree) and one of its finest.
"It's always too long between albums," Ardolino says. "We wish we could start a new one right now. It's always the record companies and budgets and all that stuff. It doesn't take us too long to record; it's just that we wait until the record company allows us to make one and gives us the time and studio to do it. It usually only takes us one or two months to make an album."
Part of the problem is that NRBQ has trouble staying in one place. It has released its 23 albums on nearly a dozen labels over the years. Another part of the problem is the band's sound; no one is quite sure what to do and how to market the band. "We always get on a label for one album, and then they get rid of us," Ardolino says. Such was the case with Virgin's mishandling of 1989's Wild Weekend, possibly the most accessible of the band's albums and certainly one of its finest. "We always thought that that would be the one they'd push and do whatever it takes, but they didn't. We even made two videos for that one.
"A lot of times what happens is that we get signed by someone at the label, but by the time the album comes out, the person who signed us has left the label. And then the label doesn't know what we are or what to do with us. They let it die. It's frustrating, but we keep going."
For 30 years, which is something like 150 in band years, they've kept going. "We really don't feel it," Ardolino says. "It's a weird thing. In one way, I can see it being that long, and in another way, it seems like two years." The band also celebrated last year with its highest profile gig ever, a spot on The Simpsons. Executive Producer Mike Scully, who hails from Ardolino's hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts (a town that, maybe not so coincidentally, shares its name with that of the Simpsons), is a longtime NRBQ fan and was responsible for getting the band on the animated series. "That's all I watch on TV -- that and The Young and the Restless," Ardolino explains. "That was so great. It sure got people writing about us. It was a big deal."
Ardolino is currently the only member residing in Springfield. Johnny Spampinato is in nearby Cape Cod, while Joey lives in Nashville and Adams in Vermont. "We just meet wherever the first job is and stay together after that," Ardolino says. And those jobs are pretty much handled as they were 30 years ago: The band piles into a rented car and hits the road. "It's still great to play live," he says. "The hard part is getting there, the traveling."
In these days of month-long tours, the Q mostly sticks to small road trips. Ardolino is excited about an upcoming gig in Japan ("The people there are the greatest fans"), but long-term plans basically include a few shows, listening to records, and watching reruns of Leave It to Beaver. "It's a great life," he says. "We're really lucky to be able to do this, play music and listen to records."
And not just listen to records, but soak in every bit of information pressed into the grooves that they can. Yes, NRBQ is made up of geeks who could work at the record store in High Fidelity. As Ardolino scans the band's latest itinerary, the last date of which is Cleveland, he comes up with a bit of trivia that only the most discriminating music fan would know.
"They never talk about Don Howard in Cleveland," he says. "He had this huge hit in '52, "Oh Happy Day.' People were giving it crap. There was this magazine article that called it an electronic monstrosity. It's just him singing with an acoustic guitar. He's from Cleveland, and he's forgotten. It's like this early rock and roll ballad; it's really ahead of its time in a way. It was a million-seller, and no one remembers it. I didn't even remember it. Terry [Adams] found the record, and we loved it. It's kind of crude. Don Howard had a follow-up on Triple A, which Essex leased, and he actually had a single on Coral and a single on Mercury. And that's it. But he never had another hit besides that one, and people are always putting it down. They called him "The Mystery Singer' when they put the record out. And he's from Cleveland."
Maybe that's why NRBQ is so difficult to pigeonhole. With that kind of information rolling around in the brains of its members, is it any wonder commercial success has been so elusive? They're just too damn committed to the music.
"We don't know anything else," Ardolino admits. "We just make the music. That's been our problem, I guess. But I can't imagine it any other way. It's other people's jobs [to handle the business].
"Someday someone will figure out how to make us go over big."
Like, maybe sometime within the next 30 years.
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