The 1978 album NRBQ at Yankee Stadium boasts a delightful visual joke. The title suggests the band had been documented playing for 50,000 screaming fans, just like the Beatles had done at Shea Stadium 13 years earlier. But the album cover is a photo of the cavernous ballpark entirely empty except for four tiny figures sitting behind the first base dugout. On the back cover, these characters are spied through a pair of binoculars and are revealed to be Joey Spampinato, Al Anderson, Terry Adams and Tom Ardolino of the NRBQ.
The joke was compounded by the fact that NRBQ was still playing in bars a dozen years into his career – and would still be doing so three decades later. Critics took to calling them “the best bar band in the world,” a label that was both a blessing and a curse. Sure, everyone wants to be the best at something, but no band wants to be relegated to a career in loud, low-paying bars.
This fate was particularly infuriating for a band like NRBQ, who weren’t so different from the Beatles after all. Bassist Spampinato has written and sung some pretty McCartney ballads. Guitarist Anderson played the lead and wrote songs as if channeling Carl Perkins, just like George Harrison had. Keyboardist Adams was the focal point; his Lennon-like irreverence continued to push the boundaries, though he drew more inspiration from Sun Ra than Bob Dylan. And Ardolino was the Ringo-style drummer.
But spending your life in bars rather than stadiums affects how music is released. The Beatles adapted their music to conquer the world, while NRBQ adapted theirs to entertain a bar full of bohemian and working-class drunks. As a result, their lyrics were more down to earth; they were more likely to tout the pleasures of “Ridin’ in My Car” than to speculate on how many holes it takes to fill Albert Hall. They were more likely to record in the studio as if they were playing in a club: no reverse tapes or string quartets, just bass, guitar, keyboards and drums for incredibly catchy.
Bar-band life encourages two healthy tendencies: a willingness to embrace multiple genres and an unbridled sense of humor. This music should not be confused with garage-rock, because garages are as different from bars as bars are from stadiums. Garage-rock is about letting off steam and venting pent-up feelings, while bar-band music is about keeping a crowd in close quarters to laugh, dance, and drink. Playing for an audience close to a club makes for a very different kind of music than playing for imaginary listeners in a garage or a distant, faceless audience at a festival.
Back when they were still a bar band in Hamburg and Liverpool, the Beatles covered the R&B of Chuck Berry, the rockabilly of Gene Vincent, the doo-wop of the Olympics and the crooning pop of Nat King Cole, just as NRBQ would later cover Thelonious Monk’s jazz, Johnny Cash’s rockabilly. and the blues of Big Joe Turner. The Beatles knew how to make audiences laugh with songs like Fats Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” and Carl Perkins’ “Lend Me Your Comb,” just like NRBQ could with “Howard Johnson’s Got His Ho-Jo Working.” and “Crazy Like a Fox.” The Beatles left behind the bar band phase of their career, but NRBQ never did.
That’s a good thing, because we listeners need both the high ambitions of stadium music and the down-to-earth intimacy of bar music. Nobody did the first better than The Beatles, and nobody did the second better than NRBQ. The proof with the NRBQ box set released recently, High Noon—A 50 Year Retrospective. All five CDs showcase the underrated pleasures of bar band music, but discs three and four, which focus on the classic Spampinato-Anderson-Adams-Ardolino line-up, are bar band music to its core. better.
Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello and Keith Richards all shared their admiration for the NRBQ with interviewers, and NRBQ songs have been recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, Dave Edmunds, Steve Earle, REM’s Mike Mills and Spongebob Squarepants. And a lot of great songs are still waiting to be covered by a savvy indie rock band. It’s no surprise that Anderson became one of country music’s top songwriters after leaving the band to move to Nashville.
He was replaced on guitar by Joey Spaminato’s little brother, Johnny. But in 2004, the band went on hiatus after Adams developed throat cancer; it rebounded but Ardolino succumbed to diabetes in 2012. An Adams-led version of the band is still semi-active (and featured on the first record), but the band’s heyday as a three-headed monster is past.
Pop music needs bands like NRBQ. We need bands with multiple lead singers, eclectic tastes, catchy tunes, explosive grounding and a good sense of humor. Who can fulfill this role today?
For the 90s and 2000s, the Holmes brothers fulfilled this role admirably. The rural trio from Virginia had three impressive singers, two strong songwriters, a witty irreverence and an equal ease in blues, gospel and country. They recorded with Van Morrison and Joan Osborne, but spent most of their time in East Coast bars. Their era ended, however, when two-thirds of the band died in 2015.
Phil and Dave Alvin, co-founders of the Blasters, have performed the role on their recent duo tours and recordings. They are both lead singers; Dave is a great songwriter; they sing everything from R&B and rockabilly to gospel and blues, and they have an irrepressible sense of humor. But they are both in their 60s. What are the younger bands that satisfy our craving for good bar band music?
The Tedeschi-Trucks group was a possibility, but as they moved from clubs to theaters, their music grew and lost its intimacy. The same could be said of the Mavericks, Neville Brothers, Alabama Shakes, Ben Folds Five and many more. Changing your sound as you change venues is inevitable: the spontaneity and loose jokes that are the charm of a bar can sound sloppy in a theater or festival. And the new generation of bands usually focuses too narrowly on one subgenre of music to echo the NRBQ pleasures of crossing boundaries.
A good candidate for the future of bar band music is the Hard Working Americans, the fun and lively jam group led by singer-songwriters Todd Snider and Neal Casal. They’re not afraid to cover good songs in any genre or change their sound from number to number. There are probably more suitors flying under the radar.
But the best bar band of the moment is undoubtedly the Bottle Rockets. They only have one lead singer, but Brian Henneman writes wonderful songs in both comedic and tragic modes, and the band is flexible enough to play hard rock, country twang and Springsteenish anthems; they even recorded a tribute to Doug Sahm. They’re too good to still be working in bars a quarter of a century into their careers, but they’ve responded to the hand fate has dealt them by emphasizing the qualities that make bar band music such a special experience. They are the legitimate heirs of the NRBQ.