Extremism Is No Vice for NRBQ : Pop music: The band, playing at Coach House tonight, is eclectic mix of musicians who have worked in obscurity for more than two decades despite grueling tour schedule.
You can be going along, asking NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino a perfectly normal, rock critic-type question, and suddenly, out of nowhere, he’ll interject, “I hung out with Frank Gorshin recently.”
While impressionist Gorshin--best known for playing the Riddler on the ‘60s “Batman” TV series--has maintained such a low career profile in recent decades that many simply presumed him dead, Ardolino was delighted to meet and talk to him following Gorshin’s engagement at a Springfield, Mass., Polynesian restaurant. Ardolino gushed, “Man, I didn’t know that he’d been on ‘Highway Patrol’!”
Ardolino--who looks rather like a teddy bear that has landed on its head a few too many times--took a couple of other notable detours in the course of a phone conversation last week. One was to declaim at length on his love for the daytime soap, “The Young and the Restless.”
“It’s tough--you kind of have to be guided into the show, but once you’re on to it, it’s like a whole other world,” he insisted.
The same certainly could be said of his band, which will perform at the Coach House tonight. Working in obscurity for more than two decades, NRBQ (which originally stood for New Rhythm and Blues Quartet) makes some of the most joyful, tuneful, distinctive, free-flying, whimsical, rootsy, avant garde, greasy, anarchic rock music on earth.
It’s a group of extremes. Keyboardist Terry Adams is a dizzying blend of Thelonious Monk’s spare jazz voicings and Jerry Lee Lewis’ knuckle-busting abandon. Guitarist Al Anderson is one of the most respected Telecaster masters in the business, and despite his gruff exterior--"He’s getting better. He’ll sometimes say ‘Hi’ back now,” Ardolino said--he writes some lovely, hook-laden melodies. So does bassist Joey Spampinato, who also often gets a call from the likes of Keith Richards or Eric Clapton to add his Sears Silvertone bass to their sessions.
And Ardolino? “Me, I’m just the idiot boy, always smiling,” he said. If he appears to be some kind of nonstop happy while whacking out one of the most solid back beats in the business, it’s because he is happy.
The group spends some 45 weeks of the year touring. Its shot at stardom a couple of years back with the stunningly wonderful “Wild Weekend” album and tours supporting R.E.M. and Bonnie Raitt didn’t pan out, and they are again without a contract. Many acts would be just a tad bitter following that.
“Bitter ain’t the word for us,” Ardolino insisted. “We get disappointed sometimes, and we don’t understand. One of our old record labels sent us a statement once claiming the total sales of one of our albums was three cassettes. But it ain’t gonna stop us. Besides, I think we have a great life. We get to play whatever we want, and we got to meet a lot of great people. I know all the good record stores in every town. What else is there? I think I’m real lucky. This month I’m finishing 18 years with the band, and looking forward to starting 19.
“I can’t imagine how I ever ended up here, but I really believe that I’m--we’re all--right where we’re supposed to be,” he said. “I wouldn’t know what else to do. I’ve never been in another band.”
Ardolino did indeed go straight from being a kid playing along with records to playing in his favorite band.
“I saw them in Springfield when I was 15. I’d never even heard them, but they were playing an all-ages club so I went. And something just came over me. I really liked them and wrote them a letter. I’d never done anything like that. We started writing back and forth, and from there it went to reel-to-reel tapes of old records we liked. We found we liked a lot of the same stuff and got to be friends through that.
“Then one night at a show their drummer didn’t make it back on stage for the encore. They knew I played drums in my basement along with records, but I’d never played with a band. They started the song without the drummer, so I got up there. At the end Al turned around and he’d thought it was the old drummer. So when that drummer left the band they said, ‘Do you think you can do it?’ And I immediately said, ‘Yeah, I can do it.’ ”
He said there was some terror involved in being fresh out of high school and suddenly performing with his heroes. “It was scary in a way, but the music was so wild that it took over the scariness. When I started, every once in a while it would hit me, but not much. And I think I’m in now.”
Though without a record contract at present, the group isn’t going unrepresented in the CD bins. Rhino Records has assembled a best-of double-disc compilation titled “Peek-a-Boo” with 35 NRBQ gems mined from two decades. Another label, Rykodisc, has just issued another compilation, “Honest Dollar,” of previously unreleased live performances culled from the past 10 years. They recently completed a soundtrack to “Storm Along,” a children’s cable TV special with narration by John Candy. The show and the disc are due in September.
As a treat for some fans, 1,000 copies of “Honest Dollar” have been randomly packed with dollar bills individually signed by all the band members, a process Ardolino wouldn’t especially care to repeat.
The band members used to share a house, but now all live scattered in different states, a possible reaction to so much time spent together on the road. Ardolino seems not even to have a fixed abode, staying sometimes with a girlfriend in New Orleans, sometimes in the Washington, D.C., area and sometimes with his parents in Springfield, which is also where his record collection resides.
In his scant time off the road, Ardolino has compiled one of the strangest reissue projects ever waxed, titled “The Beat of the Traps.”
“Remember those ads in the back of tacky magazines that read, ‘Hit song-makers need your lyrics? We’ll put them to music and you could be a millionaire!’ You’d write to the company and it turned out that if you wanted them to record your song you’d have to pay them. They’d press a few up and send them to you.
“Well, I collect those. I always look for them in thrift stores. It’s some of the sickest stuff you ever heard. But sometimes it’s just beautiful, because no one really knows what they’re doing and the way it turns out is just great. So I put this album of them together, and I can’t believe it. It’s getting great reviews. I’m working on Volume 2 right now.”
While NRBQ may be scarcely more known to the public than those would-be kitchen lyricists, they don’t want for famous fans, which led to a dream come true for Ardolino. Along with such folks as Raitt, R.E.M. and Dave Edmunds, members of Paul McCartney’s band are also big NRBQ fans, and flew the group to Chicago to see the last show of McCartney’s 1990 U.S. tour.
Ardolino, a big-time Beatles fan, said, “They were having this party. I just went to this little table on the side and was sitting there, and suddenly Paul and Linda come and sit there and we just started talking, and they were so nice and real. I have these good Beatle dreams, you know, about once every three months, and this was just like one of those. I think that was the best day of my life.”