Sitting down to write anything about the new 5-CD NRBQ set, High Noon: A 50-Year Retrospective, out on November 11 from Omnivore Recordings, I was faced with one inescapable fact: this could very well be the band whose music is hardest to describe for those who've never heard it. Defying genre labels, leaping styles with the ease of Superman, and displaying a consistent level of musicianship that would one would be hard pressed to find in the worlds of session players, the cats in NRBQ have been making American music for 50 years. That is, quite simply, the only way to describe the 106 songs here that span so many styles and yet maintain a uniquely consistent level of quality despite band line-up changes and shifting stylistics touches. There is no other way to say it: NRBQ are the greatest band this country has ever produced and one listen to this compilation is sure to convince you of that if you had any trace of doubt that what I said was the real truth.
Of course the one constant here has been Terry Adams. While players like Al Anderson, Joey Spampinato, Tom Ardolino, and Steve Ferguson have added to the legend of the "New Rhythm and Blues Quintet", it's been Terry Adams who's been the anchor for 50 years in this act. High Noon: A 50-Year Retrospective illustrates a certain similarity in style despite the fact that the band leap-frogs over styles constantly. To its credit, the discs of this set have each been structured in such a way as to capture the spontaneity of the band's live shows. Rather than group the tunes in a purely chronological order, the compilation starts with the most recent material and then jumps back to 1966 and works up to 2004. And while that sounds like a rather haphazard way of presenting so much material from such an important band, the very structure of this set makes the case for the greatness of the act being chronicled.
Disc 1 opens with a previously-unreleased version of Sun Ra's "Love in Outer Space" and the band makes this one their own. Finding the soft heart in the free jazz, Adams and the boys illustrate precisely how their versatility made any material they touched shine. Elsewhere on this disc, "The Animal Life" percolates with a nice kind of late-Beatles whimsical groove, while the absolutely infectious "Keep This Love Goin'" swings with the same sort of power-pop vibe one can hear on the best Barenaked Ladies and Fountains of Wayne sides, 2 bands who owe so much to the work of NRBQ.
After the pleasures here at the start, Disc 2 heads back to the very beginning (1966) and the early years after that. Here, you can hear a more traditional, roots-y sound from the band. Stuff like "Rocket Number 9" veers into Beefheart territory as the band indulges their more extreme instincts. Still, things are reasonably grounded here. Elsewhere, the superb jazz stomp of "Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard" (live) swings with abandon, while "You Can't Hide" rocks very nearly like CCR, the band swerving into mainstream rock on tracks like this one. "Flat Foot Flewzy" blends a Stones-like sense of boogie woogie with some tasty licks of something that's nearly the blues.
Disc 3 of High Noon: A 50-Year Retrospective shows the material being refined as Al Anderson joins the band. Covering the years 1971 to 1978, this disc sees NRBQ become the band we all know and love, the one that was played on radio stations like WHFS here in the D.C. area so often. "Ridin' In My Car" sounds like a hit still, while "RC Cola and a Moon Pie" swings with intent. Takes on standards of the country genre like "Get Rhythm" and "This Old House" take on new life here as the band breathes fire into cuts like these. To their credit, NRBQ owned everything they performed and few bands, with the possible exception of the Grateful Dead, seemed as comfortable at interpreting others' songs. That NRBQ put a lot more spark into these covers than Jerry and the boys says a lot about the mindset here. Closer to a tight jazz outfit than a jam band, NRBQ played brisk R'n'B hits with gusto and a sense of how the material would best be served by their musicianship. Still, they could branch out a bit as the silly "Get That Gasoline Blues (Unedited Single Version)" shows. The single would go down as the band's only Top 100 hit, while the lyrical "Still in School" charms on the sort of melody that McCartney and Harrison would use on their first post-Beatles solo recordings. One could make a good case for Disc 3 being the most essential portion of High Noon: A 50-Year Retrospective if not for the presence on Disc 4 of some of the band's best cuts.
So, yeah, rest assured Disc 4 has "Me and the Boys" and "Captain Lou" (with wrestler Captain Lou Albano). If these are the 2 best-known NRBQ songs, so be it as they both still rock. Blasts of fun, these numbers never get old, frankly, and they've probably never sounded crisper than they do on High Noon: A 50-Year Retrospective thanks to Gary Hobish, who did the mastering of this mammoth set, and the folks at Omnivore Recordings who put this whole thing together. "I Want You Bad", later covered by both Dave Edmunds and The Long Ryders, and "Christmas Wish", covered by a few acts, are remarkably resilient reminders of how good this group was at their peak as covered by Disc 4 of this set. And if stuff like "Wacky Tobacky" is the kind of thing that earned this lot a rep as a collection of goofballs, "The One and Only" is the kind of thing they should have become more well-known for. Deliriously catchy, this is the best sort of roots rock (for lack of a better term) that ruled certain swathes of college radio at one time in the distant past. Frankly, all of disc 4 is very nearly perfect but I suppose by saying that that I'm showing which era of this band's long life I prefer, eh?
The majority of the final disc in this exemplary collection covers the fairly recent past of NRBQ after the departure of Al Anderson (he's on just 2 cuts on this disc). The band now contained 2 Spampinatos as Johnny had joined his brother Joey in the group by this point. A lot of this material retains a lightness of touch that charms a listener even now. Stuff like "Sail On, Sail On" is sublime, and the Randy Newman-like "Dummy" showcases a Zappa-like sense of sophistication in the instrumentation behind the vocals. Elsewhere, the near-bossa nova of "Blame It on the World" sounds like a lost classic, and the spry "Little Floater" recalls the best moments from John Hiatt's output in the same era.
More than 5 hours of music, 106 fun tracks, and wonderful liner notes make this the definitive NRBQ compilation the world has always needed. If you were a fan of the band before this one, you're gonna be even more of a one when these 5 hours are up. If you're relatively new to this band, grab High Noon: A 50-Year Retrospective for a crash course in the greatness of NRBQ. You might recognize a bunch of the cuts on Disc 4, and a handful of others, but you will come away smiling after playing the rest of this generous set. Music that is positively inspiring in its inventiveness, the work of NRBQ has remained a constant over time. Tastes have changed but these cats -- no matter the line-up -- have pursued a sort of musical playfulness that is positively infectious. Expert musicians who have had the good sense to not bore listeners with anything too pretentious, Terry Adams and his revolving crew have offered up some of the most flat-out enjoyable music this continent has ever produced. Doubt me? Spin this set in any sequence and then let the tunes convince you.
[Photos: Abe Perlstein, Keiko Ardolino]