The gift giving holiday season came early this year for fans of NRBQ, alternately known as the New Rhythm And Blues Quartet. In November, Ominvore Records issued a fine five -- count 'em 5! -- CD set called NRBQ High Noon : A 50-Year Retrospective.
Now, for those in the know, a five disc set by NRBQ is probably not a big surprise as the underdog band has courted a loyal following for many, many years and they have a lot of albums out. For those of you who are not familiar with the band -- or like myself, a relative new comer to the party -- a multi-disc set like this may well be a good first toe in the water to explore the band and its many incarnations.
This is the first comprehensive, career-spanning set on the band.
"But wait..." you question with raised eyebrow: "Toe in the water?" .... Reminding me that five CDs might be a pretty heavy thing for a newbie listener to get their head around....
I argue: not necessarily.
Consider that the band has recorded more than 30 albums (!) so, in a way five CDs is kinda just scratching the surface.
Thus a retrospective like this -- chockfull of rarities, concert staples and previously unissued gems (106 songs in all), all remastered -- is probably a better introduction to the band and its music than just picking up a few albums willy nilly (like I've been doing lately, frankly!).
Accordingly, High Noon - A 50 Year Retrospective is giving me a very good insight to all that NRBQ offers and its a whole lot of fun!
I'm still working my way through it all!
For those of you who are completely new to the band, how do I describe NRBQ better than their own name?
Well, I can't and I wont try. Nope.
I mean... these guys literally do it all.
In one instant you might hear a bizarre, carefully-sculpted Zappa-esque mind-melter like "Rocket Number 9" (a cover of a Sun Ra tune, recorded for their first album in 1969) followed by a soothing Broadway show tune (such as Rogers and Hammerstein's "Getting To Know You") and then perhaps a scorching rockabilly-flavored rocker like "Crazy Like a Fox."
Heck, they even do Thelonious Monk's "Ruby My Dear."
NRBQ takes a sort of a rootsier approach to making music than, say, Frank Zappa, yet their music is no less diverse, no less precise and no less passionate.
I mean this in a good way when I say that they are all over the place -- that is part of the joy of exploring their catalog.
It is a complete alphabet soup.
Now, I certainly was not a total novice to the NRBQ before working on this review. I got my first taste of their music when new wave rock legend Dave Edmunds covered their now-classic rocker "Me & The Boys" on his fine 1982 album D.E. 7th. The song appears directly after "From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)," which Bruce Springsteen wrote for Edmunds -- so NRBQ's songwriting was in very good company on that album!
Edmunds also covered NRBQ's great power pop gem "I Want You Bad" on his Jeff Lynne produced album Information. When I heard it on this set, I realized -- after checking on the Interwebs -- that San Francisco legends The Flamin' Groovies have been covering that tune live for years as well! I know I have seen them do it a couple of times, at least!
Apparently Bonnie Raitt, She And Him, Steve Earle, Los Lobos, and Widespread Panic have covered NRBQ tunes, so I need to dig down deeper and check out which songs they did -- I probably know them and didn't realize they were written by NRBQ!
In recent years I've picked up a bunch of their albums on vinyl and CD and from what I've heard this set seems remarkably consistent track to track with regards to basic fidelity -- especially given that they recorded for numerous labels over the years, including Columbia, Rounder/Red Rooster and Kama Sutra Records. The discs in High Noon - A 50 Year Retrospective are grouped roughly by eras of the band, tracking the periods of 1966-70, 1971-78, 1977-1990, 1989-2004 and 2005-16.
With all these different versions of the band, they have remained remarkably consistent. To that, there is one description of NRBQ in the enclosed booklet that captured my imagination: it likens them to no less than the bands led by Duke Ellington or Count Basie. Key members may come and go over the years, but the essence of the group remains allowing the music to take on its own life. This helps the band to stay the course, and pursue its vision
That is great to know as I do hope to see them live one of these days soon -- I know they'll be as eclectic as their albums and that is what I'm diggin' about them.
Rock on, NRBQ!