I was browsing the racks of CDs at the Gram shop in Bangkok’s Siam Paragon shopping center last week when I came upon something that made me smile big time: At Yankee Stadium by NRBQ. I don’t know who thought to order that gem of a disc, but they deserve a raise. I only hope that some lucky soul will realize what a great album this is and snatch it up and savor it. You might assume from the title that this is a live concert recording, but no, it’s only a mere studio album, although one that ranks as one of my most treasured discs. At Yankee Stadium contains a rambunctious batch of rockin’ rhythm and blues, tempered with sweet pop tunes. Songs so seductively tuneful, you wonder why, oh why, did this band never dominate the airwaves? But NRBQ (New Rhythm & Blues Quartet) were never about guitar solos, vocal gymnastics, or deep lyrical content; their music was just joyous, toe tappin’, butt shakin’ fun.
At Yankee Stadium was released in 1978 and almost immediately disappeared from retail shelves. Or maybe the LPs just never found their way out of the dusty warehouses. Radio airplay? Not a chance during those disco-fied times. I found my beloved first copy in the cut-out bins of a record store in Orlando the following year, taking a chance on it just because of the baseball theme on the cover. Once I got home and listened to it, the reaction was immediate; Wow, this was great stuff! Terry Adams and “Big Al” Anderson were a mighty songwriting combination in those days, and this album is testament to their brilliance. Originals like “Green Lights,” “It Comes to Me Naturally,” and the delicious “I Want You Bad” were interspersed with frisky covers of “Get Rhythm” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” If you weren’t either smiling or dancing by the time the album was over, you were definitely a candidate for the priesthood.
For several decades, NRBQ had the well-deserved reputation as being one of the very best live bands around. Seeing as how they were never a big name, their shows were played in bars and small halls as opposed to arenas and stadiums (thus, the irony of the At Yankee Stadium cover). No matter what the venue, however, they would play wild and vivacious sets, showing off their considerable musical chops, and throwing in weird cover versions (Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” being just one suprise) to spice things up even further. NRBQ fans swore by the band’s dynamic performances and were as dedicated a bunch as the “Dead Heads” who follow the Grateful Dead. I missed a chance to see NRBQ when they performed in Orlando in the early 80s, but finally got a chance to see the almighty Q when they played at a bar in San Francisco a decade later. It was, as expected, a thoroughly exuberant show, but what I remember most about that night was one of the people in the crowd: a gentleman by the name of Todd Rundgren. And to make that night even more special, after NRBQ had finished playing, my friend Tom and I high-tailed it to another bar to see Chris Isaak and his band play a show. Ah, those heady days of seeing great live music, and not paying a fortune for the experience.
The Orlando show by NRBQ that I missed was actually performed in the nearby suburb of Longwood at a barn-like club called Joint in the Woods. The show was broadcast live on a local radio station, so at least I got the chance to hear most of it that night. And one of the songs from that show, an impromptu ditty called “Welcome to Orlando,” ended up as a bonus track on another excellent NRBQ album, Kick Me Hard.
If you are a newcomer to NRBQ, besides At Yankee Stadium, another good starting point is the double disc compilation Peek-A-Boo: the Best of NRBQ 1969-1989 on Rhino; 35 tracks of groovy goodness. Their early albums, back in the late 60s and early 70s with guitarist Steve Ferguson are also very good, but with a looser and sometimes jazzier flavor. A great live recording from that period that was released on CD recently is Ludlow Garage 1970, an 18-track set recorded live at a club in Cincinnati. Lots of creative originals that take off and wiggle, plus some offbeat covers of tunes by Sun Ra, Carla Bley, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. They have several other live albums too, including the excellent Al Anderson-era recording Diggin’ Uncle Q. Fun stuff.