In March of 2011, Terry Adams, keyboardist and founding member of the venerable NRBQ, dropped a bombshell on his fans.
In a 1200-word letter on the band’s website, Adams led with the good news: “I'm extremely happy to announce,” he wrote, “that, with the release of our new CD next week, my Quartet will be resuming the name NRBQ. After three years of playing music … under the name The Terry Adams Rock and Roll Quartet, I'm finally ready to continue doing what I know how to do best and that is to move NRBQ forward.”
“There's been a lot of confusion and speculation for the last six years about what happened with the band in 2004,” Adams continued. “The time has come to set the record straight.” He detailed the fracturing of the Q’s then-current lineup — bassist/vocalist Joey Spampinato, his brother Joey, who replaced longtime member Al Anderson in 1994, on guitar, and drummer Tom Ardolino — after Adams’ 2004 diagnosis and subsequent struggle with stage four throat cancer, an illness Adams had kept private, save for family and close friends, until the letter.
“I love NRBQ,” Adams wrote on the website. “I didn't break up the band. I didn't quit NRBQ. I didn't fire anyone from NRBQ and I did not stop to pursue other projects. I would never end it — it's my life's work.”
“I had still believed in the value of NRBQ,” Adams, whose cancer is now in remission, recently told the Advocate by phone from his home near Northampton, Mass. “When the other members expressed the opposite, I never changed, and it took me just some time to find the right musicians who understand NRBQ as more than music.”
For Adams, who hails from Louisville, Ky., music was a gateway into alternative ways of living. “The way I was brought up,” he says, “I didn’t know about culture, about the rest of the world. But I could hear it in music. I knew there was something else there out there that was alive. So from that, just listening to that brought me in a roundabout way to the realization that I could make music. I was kind of a professional listener.”
Terry Adams: "You look for a new experience musically. I think the audience does too, and all the players are spontaneous, you know? We can live with the unknown."
Adams played trumpet in school, moved to piano when he found out you could play more than one note at a time, discovered Thelonious Monk at 14 and studied composition privately with a guy named Don Murray, who’d tell him when his pieces got too boring. In January of 1966, Adams started NRBQ with his older brother, trombonist Donn Adams, and the astonishing guitarist Steve Ferguson, who died of cancer in 2009 at age 60. “I had my philosophy of what it should be like to be in a band,” Adams says. “To have been a fan of all kinds of music, I wanted to play in a band where I could express music anyway I wanted. So NRBQ had it’s own philosophy before I ever left Louisville.” When nimble-fingered Ferguson came on board, Adams says, he knew NRBQ could be successful.
It didn’t happen, at least not yet. After two albums for Columbia, the label dropped NRBQ during preparations for a third release. Ferguson, singer Frank Gadler and drummer Tom Staley quit, leaving only Adams and Spampinato, who reformed in 1974 with Anderson and Ardolino. The new quartet went on a twenty-year tear, wowing crowds with jaw-dropping musicianship and hilarious on-stage antics, always staying slightly under the radar of mainstream pop.
The Q’s music has always been about multiple personalities, or perhaps possibilities; they explore grooves, staying inside them until they’ve stretched and pulled long enough, moving on when they feel comfortable they’ve done enough looking around. Like some current, high-profile jam-bands, they lay back into deep, danceable vamps, feeling out the possibilities.
In another sense, though, the Q is about songcraft, the art of perfecting the three-minute gem. (After leaving NRBQ, Anderson went on to become a top Nashville tunesmith, penning songs for Tim McGraw, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill, Leann Rimes and others.)
Adams’ freewheeling stance on genre-bending has its roots firmly in the mid-60s, but it also fits easily with today’s musical world, where indie rock regularly rubs shoulders with jazz and classical weirdness. The band’s earliest lineup covered Sun Ra and Eddie Cochran on their debut LP; on the follow-up, they mixed Carl Perkins’ country brambles with original Kentucky jazz-funk. Things got stranger from there, and funnier.
“NRBQ gets called eclectic and unpromotable,” Adams says, “and the Beatles were getting away with it. But you know these guys played 14 different kinds of music on Revolver.” Adams believes the Q never did the wide-ranging stylistic thing just to prove they could do so. “It’s really what comes naturally. It’s the best way to express yourself and ourselves. There’s never been an academic, showoff kind of thing. That has nothing to do with what I’m doing with NRBQ. You don’t recognize those kinds of borders.”
“You have to watch the nostalgia thing because I’m keeping it moving forward.”
Last month, Adams and the current Q — Scott Ligon and Pete Donnelly, each on guitar, bass and vocals, and drummer Conrad Choucroun — released Keep This Love Goin’, a strong 12-song CD of compositions written by Adams, Ligon and Donnelly with cover art by Ardolino. This weekend, they’ll headline the Clang! Thang in East Windsor, anchoring a lineup of closely-related Clang! Records artists, including singer-songwriter P.J. O’Connell, Jim Stephanson, the husband-wife musical duo of Chris Ligon and Heather McAdams and several other acts and guest artists, including Donn Adams with the Whole Wheat Horns and Tom Ardolino. It’ll close with a fan jam, or “Q-tenanny.”
With so much history, Adams rarely waxes sentimental over earlier periods in the Q’s history. “You have to watch the nostalgia thing because I’m keeping it moving forward,” he says. “Some people can already tell you that you peaked in 1982. You can decide that after we stop. I don’t believe in it because you may not have heard the Golden Era yet. You may not know what’s going to happen. I know and I can say with complete authority that the Golden Era is yet to come.”
Even with the quartet’s relative newness as NRBQ, Adams still isn’t comfortable with setlists.
“I never know what we are going to play even first,” he says. “I have to feel what’s needed in a particular situation that we are in. I’ve gotten good at it. I play what’s needed. That’s what I call … I really do want it to be the moment that we are living in. Not something from last week. That goes for the songs themselves. You look for a new experience musically. I think the audience does too, and all the players are spontaneous, you know? We can live with the unknown.”
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter at @MikeHamad.
The Clang! Thang with NRBQ, June 24-25, $45-$105, 161 Bridge Street, East Windsor, theclangthang.eventbrite.com.