Having survived for 23 years without a big commercial breakthrough, NRBQ is used to measuring progress in small increments.
For instance, the fact that the hard-to-categorize rock band is getting ready to record its second consecutive album for Virgin Records is in itself a sign of improvement. The last time NRBQ had been signed to a high-profile label, Bearsville, it put out one album, then saw its recording career stalled through years of legal infighting with the company. By the time the opportunity arose to make a new album of fresh material under new auspices (namely, Virgin’s), six years had passed.
“Things get better for us all the time. It’s hard to sit around and complain about stuff,” said Joey Spampinato, who has been singing and playing bass in NRBQ for virtually all his adult life. “Every band wants to have a hit record. If they say they don’t, they’re lying. You always shoot for that. But we’ve been around for how many years, and we’re still going.”
NRBQ, which plays tonight at the Coach House and Friday at Bogart’s, has spent the years garnering honor without profit, at least not the degree of profit that the record industry typically demands, or that the band’s music merits.
Spampinato and his mates--co-founder Terry Adams on keyboards, singer-guitarist Al Anderson, who joined in 1971, and drummer Tom Ardolino, a member since 1974--play music that is more diversified than a tycoon’s portfolio.
NRBQ can recall The Band in its command of tradition-minded roots rock, and the sense of assured looseness with which its members play on stage. On “Wild Weekend,” NRBQ’s fetchingly poppy release from 1989, the band’s zest for melody and harmony and its knack for inventive, charming production and arrangement touches come to the fore in a way that brought to mind Brian Wilson’s approach during the Beach Boys’ most creative period. There’s also an experimental element to NRBQ that comes out in Anderson’s penchant for twisted, rockabilly- and country-flavored guitar runs, and Adams’ strange, jazzy keyboard excursions.
There is also a side of NRBQ that’s simply silly: In the late ‘70s the band made a novelty single with pro wrestler Captain Lou Albano, and in the mid-'80s it went through a phase where it destroyed Cabbage Patch dolls on stage. Most shows feature Ardolino, whose floppy curls make him look like a poodle in need of a session with Edward Scissorhands, stepping out from behind the drums to croon a song to a tiny doll-image of himself.
“There’s no set thing of what this band is supposed to be,” the soft-spoken Spampinato said in a recent phone interview from his home in Nashville. “We like to be multifaceted and encompass all the things that we like.”
Life with NRBQ means life on the road--the lot of any band that hopes to make a living without the benefit of hit records. Spampinato, who lives in Nashville because his wife, singer Skeeter Davis, is a regular on the Grand Ole Opry (the other NRBQ members are scattered in various states in the Northeast, the band’s longtime base), estimated that NRBQ will have played 150 to 200 shows this year.
“If you do it as long as we have, there are things about it that are good,” he said of the regular round of shows, most of them nightclub gigs. “To do it all the time keeps everything sharp. And you love music, so you like to do it.” On the other hand, NRBQ would like to operate like rock’s heavy-hitters, touring only when there is a new album to promote.
“They’re off and they get to plan and hang out and do nothing and be inspired to write the next (album). We don’t have that freedom.”
NRBQ has had occasional glimpses of the more bountiful side of the rock ‘n’ roll life: It toured arenas and amphitheaters as an opening act for R.E.M. in 1989, and played big venues again last fall as guest opener for old friend Bonnie Raitt during a series of West Coast dates. While longtime fans may cherish the idea of NRBQ as the ideal roadhouse band, Spampinato doesn’t think that the band is out of its element in larger places.
“In the past we’ve been written about as being ‘the greatest bar band.’ In a way it gets to us. When people see things in print they say, ‘OK, that’s what they are.’ A lot of times in a bar we’ll play songs that are (suited to) that situation. But we also write songs that have nothing to do with bar material.”
Spampinato will be in loftier precincts when he travels to London in late February to play at the Royal Albert Hall, where he’ll be a member of Eric Clapton’s handpicked backing band for a series of blues shows. Spampinato is becoming the American bassist of choice for British rock stars who organize special roots-rock events: A few years ago, Keith Richards drafted him into the backup band for the Chuck Berry tribute film, “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Spampinato said that connection came about through Steve Jordan, a drummer and NRBQ fan who has worked with Richards on projects outside the Rolling Stones. Spampinato met Clapton while working on the Chuck Berry film.
“My next ambition is to do something with Paul McCartney,” said Spampinato, who credits the Beatles with inspiring him to start playing in rock bands. Before that, he said, he’d been involved with doo-wop style singing groups in the Bronx, where he grew up.
Elvis Costello is another big British name who figures in NRBQ’s future. Spampinato said that Costello has agreed to produce a song on NRBQ’s next album. “We met him a long time ago. He’s always seemed like he was a fan of our band, so it was a natural thing.” Don Was, who produced Bonnie Raitt’s breakthrough album, “Nick of Time,” also has been enlisted to work with NRBQ.
Meanwhile, a double-CD overview of the band’s work has just been released by Rhino Records. “Peek-A-Boo: The Best of NRBQ 1969-1989" uncovers many an overlooked gem and serves as a good point of entry for the masses who haven’t heard from one of rock’s most resilient cult bands.
“That’s always good, especially with our record,” Spampinato said of the idea of a retrospective release. “Because they haven’t sold in hit proportions, a lot of people missed them, anyway.”
NRBQ and Brady & Siegel play tonight at 8 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $16.50. Information: (714) 496-8930. NRBQ and Some Fun play Friday night at 9 at Bogart’s, Marina Pacifica Mall, 6288 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach. Tickets: $15. Information: (213) 594-8975.