O.C Pop Music Review : Even With a New Hand, NRBQ Still Comes Up Aces

TIMES STAFF WRITER

NRBQ deals from a fuller musical deck than almost any other rock band, so losing an ace it had held for 23 years didn't stop it from playing a delightfully winning hand Tuesday night at the Coach House.

The ace in question: Al Anderson, whose value as a superb guitarist, personality-filled singer and imposing, refrigerator-sized stage presence would be impossible for most bands to replace.

But on its first tour since Anderson quit the band at New Year's, the Q sounded anything but shorthanded. Its basket of musical goodies was as full and tasty as ever; its zestful 90-minute set skipped blithely from pop-rock gems to oddball novelties, from skewed takes on big-band jazz and New Orleans R&B; to rockabilly twanging and slow-dance loveliness.

The Q's deck must have at least five or six stylistic suits in it, and the band played the evening's hand in a way that highlighted its rare gift for being at once utterly goofy and seriously excellent.

The deck now includes two of a kind: Anderson's replacement is Johnny Spampinato, younger brother of founding bassist Joey Spampinato. The newcomer didn't try to match his predecessor's penchant for taking straightforward country or rockabilly elements and twisting them up like so many animal balloons at a kiddie party. Instead, Spampinato the Younger, wielding a left-handed Rickenbacker guitar, stuck to such solid basics as twangy country-rockabilly licks and hard-chugging, surf-inspired runs. Nothing truly distinctive, but nothing to sniff at, either.

Vocally, Johnny showed up well. Taking the lead on "A Little Bit of Bad," a song Anderson sings on the Q's latest album ("Message for the Mess Age" on Rhino's Forward label), he sounded like a dead ringer for Big Al. He contributed a sweet, McCartney-style ballad, "Miracles," that he originally sang with his former band, the Massachusetts-based Incredible Casuals. And his harmonies with brother Joey and co-founder Terry Adams were consistently strong.

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In all, he proved a solid addition, albeit a slightly reserved one, which is understandable considering that he has just joined three other players who had been together more than 20 years before he arrived.

The band didn't downplay the lineup change. It opened with "Spampinato," a novelty song Adams wrote a few years back as a playful aid to the spelling and pronunciation of the NRBQ bassist's tongue-twisting name. Now, it serves as an introduction to the new kid.

NRBQ took some of the pressure off Johnny by adding two horn players, trombonist Tyrone Hill and trumpeter Dave Gordon, and featuring them prominently and often. Be-bop, New Orleans R&B; and big-band swing blared from both, spurring the show's general exuberance. Adams and Hill locked into playful duets at several junctures. The trombonist interjected a hot, sassy throb into the lightly swinging "Let's Make Some Love," while Adams kept the cool rhythmic currents flowing underneath.

With his happy-fool persona and his tendency to bang, slap, jab and dab at his baby grand, synthesizer or clavinet keyboards like a kid trying out some unfamiliar gadget, Adams is at the heart of NRBQ's loose, playful vibe. At the same time, he is one of the finest pianists in pop--perhaps underrated because he plays as if he's having too much fun to be a serious musician, and because his band has never been a big commercial force.

Adams could generate funky, swinging rhythms or come up with sallies like his intro to the Q nugget "Ridin' in My Car," which went from music-of-the-spheres modernism to classical flourishes to jaunty, rolling licks straight out of an old-time Southern bordello. Remove an original like Anderson and NRBQ still has, in Adams, enough musical eccentricity and delightful illogic to supply any 10 bands.

For all its quirks, NRBQ is a purveyor of wonderful pop songs. "I Want You Bad," "Wild Weekend" and "Ridin' in My Car" all were savory and brightly rocking. "Little Floater," Adams' celebration of a beloved car, practically did float like a dream ride, thanks to the delicate rhythm work of Adams, Joey Spampinato and drummer Tom Ardolino.

Ardolino, a little fellow who is as hairy and friendly/cuddly-looking as a teddy bear, ought to be considered to play Boo-Boo when Hollywood gets around to turning Yogi Bear into a feature-length cartoon-come-to-life. But like Adams, his blissful, almost childlike demeanor shouldn't obscure the fact that he is a marvelous pure player, who gets more snap with a flick of his wrist than most drummers do with great displays of exertion.

Anderson's departure may have introduced a shade of uncertainty about a band that had seemed to operate in its own sphere, impervious to change for decades at a time. But the revamped lineup sounds as if it can carry on merrily for as long as the players remain interested in keeping alive an institution that is still delightful, and unique.

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