Back Down to Brass Tacks
The intergalactic music subsidiary known as NRBQ unpacked a trunk filled with fifty years of music at Madison’s High Noon Saloon last night. As if that trunk needed any more cargo, the ageless band’s new record Brass Tacks provided some of the night’s brightest moments.
The debate is over—and it should be—as to whether founding member Terry Adams’ current line-up stacks up against the legendary Spampinato-Ardolino-Anderson quartet. Tunes like Chicago-based guitarist Scott Ligon’s “It’ll Be Alright” proves it. Ligon, in black suit and wide-collared dress shirt, sang it with a sweet swoon and swagger. Like he was the king of the prom.
For all its instrumental notoriety NRBQ is, at its heart, a singer’s band. Adams’ voice is remarkably intact given his early 2000’s duel with stage four throat cancer. Hell, even without that scare, he still sings with that best boyfriend sweetness.
And then there’s bassist Casey McDonough. Short, round-faced and be-speckled, he looks like an extra in a Lord of the Rings movie. His cover of Roy Orbison’s “Cryin’” silenced the crowd. McDonough knew just what to do with it; building, building, saving the higher octaves for just the right moments. And, like everything NRBQ does, he made it look as easy as salting a plate of fried eggs.
McDonough’s own songwriting was on display with “Fightin’ Back” –also from the new record. It’s an instant ‘Q classic—Buck Owens country with a Ringo Starr delivery.
There was plenty from the band’s back-log in the over two-hour set as well. “I’m Like a Magnet” had the crowd swaying. “Raining at the Drive-In” caused a joy storm. “Honey Hush” featured the loose, lush tenor sax of the agile Klem Klimek—who also sang lead off-and-on all night.
“Get Rhythm” killed, infused with Adams’ maniacal clavinet notes. McDonough sang “I Want You Bad” like he wanted it bad. They breezed through “My Girlfriend’s Pretty.” The shop fan on stage blew Adams’ mop of blonde hair (new and improved with streaks of purple!) away from his face during “Do You Feel It.” His smile revealed that yes, he indeed did feel it.
No NRBQ show would be complete without songs that the band veers far off the road to gather in. And so it was when they charged into a version of Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” – respecting the song even as they basted it in their own crooked absurdity. Late in the show a Thelonius Monk song was performed—one that Adams said he’d been playing since high school.
You know anyone who played Monk at your high school?
I’ve been going to NRBQ shows since I was in high school in the mid-1970’s when they regularly gigged at the Red Barn on the campus of the University of Louisville. Seeing them play so well now isn’t a nostalgic experience because they’ve never stopped poking and reshaping musical traditions. Their music can go anywhere because it can go everywhere.
Adams turns 65 next week. I noticed that age has reshaped Terry Adams the performer. While still a character from a cartoon show, he seems less cagey, more calm, more at ease in his own skin. He plays like he’s grateful for the gifts of his own music.
Even when slamming the clavinet keys with both elbows.
Half-way through that cover of “A Train” Adams looked up from his keys to Ligon to signal he was taking twelve. He shouted, “I got this!”
And did he ever.