In an essay from his 1975 book “Mystery Train,” Greil Marcus contends that the music of The Band was the ultimate embodiment of America, representing “the extraordinary diversity of the place, and the claim of every man and woman to do just as they please.”
Had Marcus ever heard NRBQ?
Although The Band was certainly waist-deep in American tradition, their music ultimately presented a fairly narrow view of all America has to offer.
Consider the music of NRBQ, which I’ve been considering quite a bit lately as the result of two near-simultaneous CD releases. One is NRBQ, Ludlow Garage 1970, a recording of a live show released just this week. The other CD, released in July, is called Louisville Sluggers and is the first time NRBQ founders (and Louisville natives) Terry Adams and Steve Ferguson have recorded an entire album together since, well, Ludlow Garage. (Their last studio album together was Boppin’ the Blues on Columbia in 1969, which united NRBQ with rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins.)
Both CDs cover a lot of ground, blending blues, country, rock and jazz influences with plenty of humor — which generally turns off more-serious-than-thou rock critics, but which is a huge part of the American identity. Musically, Terry and Fergy have always engaged in “extraordinary diversity” and done “just as they please,” and these CDs are filled with a sense of the pure joy of making music.
“When Steve and I first met, we locked in immediately,” Adams said. “We would start playing, and it just got more and more intense. He was the first musician I ever played with who inspired me to play better and go further.”
Ferguson, in turn, was impressed by Adams’ total involvement in whatever he played. “Terry’s playing is a combination of thinking and feeling,” Ferguson explained. “Some people’s playing is all intellectual and with others it’s all feel. But Terry combines both, and that has been a big influence on me.”
The 1970 gig at Cincinnati’s Ludlow Garage captured NRBQ’s original lineup at its peak, a year before Ferguson left the group. Along with cover tunes ranging from work of Sun Ra to Wilson Pickett, the disc features such early “Q” classics as Ferguson’s “Flat Foot Flewzy” and Adams’ “Kentucky Slop Song.”
In a lot of ways, Louisville Sluggers picks up where Ludlow Garage left off. Several tracks feature just Adams and Ferguson. Others include a rhythm section of bassist Pete Toigo and NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino.
The CD resurrects a couple of Ferguson tunes from his NRBQ days that were never recorded: “Outer Space Boogie” and the instrumental “Ichabod,” which reflects the time the band lived in upstate New York.
“We lived about 40 miles from where ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ comes from,” Ferguson recalled. “During late autumn, upstate New York is very creepy. So, I wrote ‘Ichabod’ during our first fall up there.”
Ferguson is especially proud of their cover of the Tommy Tucker tune “Hi Heel Sneakers,” and he does some impressive crooning on the romantic ballad “It’s Too Soon to Know.” Their version of “Hey Good Lookin’” owes more to Piano Red, a huge influence on Adams and Ferguson, than to the Hank Williams original.
“Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” is a Dixieland song complete with a solo by local tuba hero Quentin Sharpenstein. And is that Ferguson playing banjo? “No, I stuffed a rag in my guitar to get that sound,” Ferguson replies. “It’s my ragtime guitar.”
“Duchess County Jail” has a connection with Ludlow Garage. Just a few days before that gig, the whole band was arrested. “The sheriff was trying to win re-election by cleansing the county of longhairs, so they put us in jail and cut our hair,” Ferguson explained. “That sheriff eventually had about 100 indictments for false arrests.”
Adams and Ferguson, along with Toigo and Ardolino, recently played some shows in New York State and Tokyo.
Friday night they’ll play at the Clifton Center, and the next night they’ll perform in Chicago. The live shows include songs from Louisville Sluggers, old NRBQ favorites, and anything else they feel like doing. “Once we start playing, the ideas come fast,” Adams said.
What’s the difference between Louisville Sluggers and an NRBQ album? “I don’t think there is a difference,” Ferguson said. “The connection between Terry and me and NRBQ is inseparable, and he and I are just doing what we should have been doing a long time ago.”
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