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A Quick Fix For The Holiday Blues

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The Rock n' Roll Magic Of NRBQ

A surefire remedy for the holiday doldrums (or any manner of glumness for that matter) is the music of NRBQ, hands-down. The hardest working band in show business is also the hardest rocking with an unbeatable stage act that spans nearly 40 years of the sweatiest, fun-filled nights of rock n' roll. Often referred to as 'The World's Greatest Bar Band,' The New Rhythm and Blues Quartet have justly earned the title of simply 'World's Greatest Band, Period' in my musical encyclopedia, as the 'Q' are indisputably my most favorite band in the known universe. They're funny, versatile, spontaneous, unpredictable and passionate to the highest degree. You can throw in musical and prolific too, as NRBQ offers a well spring of imaginative material penned by not one, but three songwriters within the band, all distinctly different but cohesive. And did I mention that they absolutely kill when it comes to rockabilly? Over the many years, they have become my friends both onstage and off, and I love them dearly for the endless hours of joy that they've brought me.

It's never been easy to explain the experience of the
Q. Some time ago, I tried describing the band to a younger friend who responded, "Oh, kinda like The Replacements, except for the previous generation!" It was a humorous yet relatively salient observation. Yes, like the Mats, NRBQ are mercurial, frequently throwing in the unexpected cover tune. And yes, like the Mats, NRBQ can sometimes be sloppy in their exuberance, which is a part of their onstage charm. But no, unlike the Mats, NRBQ never suffered the alcohol abuse or subsequent fistfights that plagued the former during their lifetime. Nevertheless, the comparison was a valid one, but I later found a more succinct, nearly perfect description to explain the band to others.

Remember The Lovin' Spoonful's, 'Do You Believe In Magic?' Over his strummed harpsichord, John Sebastian begins singing six descriptive lines,

"Do you believe in magic in a young girl's heart
How the music can free her, whenever it starts
And it's magic, if the music is groovy,

It makes you feel happy like an old time movie.
I'll tell you about the magic, it'll free your soul,
But it's like trying to tell a stranger about rock n' roll."

That my friend is NRBQ. A passionate feeling that is wholly inexplicable. A strange and fascinating form of magic as indescribable as the power of rock and roll. A rich musical experience so indefinable yet fundamentally pure (like that of 'a young girls heart'), that it can't help but free the soul. Sebastian continues in the next verse with the lines,

"If you believe in magic, don't bother to choose
If it's jug band music or rhythm and blues.

Just go and listen, it'll start with a smile

That won't wipe off your face no matter how hard you try.
Your feet start tapping and you can't seem to find

How you got there, so just blow your mind."

And there it is. Although written before their time, the lyrics to 'Do You Believe In Magic' exemplify NRBQ more than Sebastian or the band themselves could ever have imagined. As masters of their art, the group creates wizardry out of rock, jazz, country, r&b and more, zanily veering from genre to genre like the silver ball within a pinball machine. It confounds, yet somehow all makes perfect sense in the end. A joyful form of sorcery. Then of course there's the random comic forays into television theme songs and novelty numbers via 'The Box.' Set list be damned, the band telepathically launch into anything from Sun Ra's, 'Rocket No.#9' to Carl Perkins or The Stylistics. From there it could careen toward a Lennon/McCartney classic or a Burt Bacharach masterpiece. My favorite surprises have been Thelonious Monk's, 'Little Rootie Tootie' and the 'Theme Song from Petticoat Junction.' Original material notwithstanding, NRBQ treat their audience to a virtual jukebox of American music through the course of an evenings worth of entertainment. This eclecticism is the foundation of their 'bar band' status among critics and it, along with their high degree of musicality, comprise the hallmarks of the band. Additionally, the band have always been true to themselves not following trends, but rather their hearts. Despite a career spanning decades, you'll find no psychedelic phase, or dance floor friendly disco beats. No 'unplugged' sessions or flirtations with rap. There are no light shows, smoke or mirrors. No theatrics or pretense, and certainly no wanking. Just four guys with incredible talent who make great music and share it freely with the world. But what truly makes the Q so remarkable is the passion with which they create. Genuinely loving what they do, their onstage enthusiasm and sincerity translate into an infectious energy that radiates well beyond the bandstand and directly to their audience.

As much as I love them for it, their diversity and pleasure taken in performing works against them as well, and could easily be the very reason they has not garnered the success they've deserved. The uninitiated are often baffled by the breadth of their repertoire, unable to easily label or categorize them with a convenient stamp. Additionally, their high spirit and onstage hijinks occasionally make for a somewhat sloppy show, leaving some unenlightened viewers thinking them slipshod and unrehearsed rather than loose and impulsive. But if you truly listen, there is no denying that they burn white hot in the midst of all the fun and tomfoolery. One need only hear their studio output to be truly convinced of the high level of musicianship and song writing prowess they possess. Check out 'Want You To Feel Good' or 'Me And The Boys' to witness their ability to rock, or 'I Love Her, She Loves Me' for a softer, tender side. If it's sophistication you question, try 'Blame It On The World' or 'Sail On, Sail On' for their craftsmanship and sheen. You see, when it comes songs from the Q, there are no grand gestures or heavy messages, just simple tunes about the normal things that guys gravitate to, like girls, cars and drive-in movie shows (or maybe it's girls in cars at drive-in movie shows). The fact the the band members are well past boyhood does not make their choice of topics the least bit creepy. Their themes are steeped in American culture from a simpler time and clearly speak to the need to keep just a bit of purity of heart and innocence within us to keep us from becoming old and codgey before our time. If there is one inherent message to be found in their music, it's contained within their appropriately titled, 'Message For The Mess Age' and is shared in 'Advice For Teenagers.' The imparted wisdom is obviously the credo by which they have led their lives both as individuals, and as a unit. The Q's material is not designed as a conscious exercise in nostalgia mind you, but rather a diversion from the mundanities of everyday living, and the relative innocence and good natured tenor of their work endears them to those who share their bonhomie. For example, take a listen to 'Housekeeping.' Where other bands would write about the excess, debauchery, boredom or bad food associated with life on the road for the privileged rock star, NRBQ takes the more human approach of declaring the simple desire for a much needed good nights sleep! It's hilarious, and a circumstance to which any weary traveler can relate. But more importantly, it's real and it's honest, and that too is what NRBQ are about. Real people with real talent playing really honest rock and roll. Atsa' my band!


Radar said...

That is the single best description I have ever seen of NRBQ! John Sebastian's lyrics nails it all down, with very little left to say. My line is usually that the world can be divided into those that love NRBQ, and those that haven't seen them. For more fun check out
and "session 165 -- songs Q made famous". Versions and originals of songs like "rats in m y room" and "hearts of stone".

Miles said...


Thanks for steering me to Probe. It's a great website! I've never heard some of those original recordings. A real museum collection!

Mikey said...

Always been a big fan of NRBQ - Rocket Number 9 and so on - so good to see them getting this excellent write-up. And thanks for the selection/collection. Interesting blog: all that metaphoric gun running sound fascinating.

Dawn said...

Great to find your blog and read your posts. You've really nailed the NRBQ magic. And many thanks for the sublime mixes!

Sailormom said...

Hey nice post! I have to thank Scott Ligon (only online info I can find) for turning me onto NRBQ. We worked together for a short time in a record store. Scott was in the best bar band in centeral Illinois history called River City Soul Revue (Myspace link that I doubt Scott or the other guys even know is up). Scott was always a big fan and had met the guys and begged them to let him join. It looks like his wish sort of came true.
I can't remember how I came across your blog but I'm glad I did.