Once you’ve steeped yourself in the music and sensibility of NRBQ, it makes total sense that a sprawling career retrospective should start in the future, even as it recaps the band’s history. Track one of Disc One of High Noon: A 50-Year Retrospective is from a forthcoming album and time travels through the cosmos to a utopia fashioned in words and music by the late Sun Ra. “Love in Outer Space” is a perfect opener for this five-CD box set: it kaleidoscopes through many of NRBQ’s signature sounds; it’s goofy, sweet, and entirely sui generis; it’s played in a characteristically loose but tight style by the latest lineup, which boasts only one—but the essential—founding member, keyboardist/singer Terry Adams; and it builds upon Adams’ answer to a question posed in 1969 about his musical inspirations, “The Sun: Sun Records and Sun Ra.”
The influence of jazz’s legendarily whimsical master of the “interstellar low ways” is evident in the new anthology, both in the presence of “Rocket Number 9,” a tune Ra gave to Adams early on, and in NRBQ’s playful tendency to sidestep from swinging, shuffling, and four-on-the-floor rhythmic precision into brief, shambling breakdowns of improvised chaos. Other jazz influences crop up in the set as well: interpretations of Claude Thornhill’s “Snowfall,” Andy Razaf and Paul Denniker’s “S’posin’,” Moondog’s “Paris,” and Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear.”
Equally paramount is the impact of that other Sun, the studio and label that Sam Phillips established in the early 1950s, from which erupted the blues, R&B, rockabilly, and rock ’n’ roll of B.B. King, Junior Parker, Jackie Brenston, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and others. The Q’s rendition of Cash’s “Get Rhythm” is here on Disc Three, which also includes Stuart Hamblen’s “This Old House” and a live version of Big Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush.” The relatively few covers among High Noon’s 106 tracks (notable highlights include Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody,” Jimmie Lloyd’s “Rocket in My Pocket,” and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Getting to Know You”) are wonderful, but they also underscore the way Adams and his songwriting band mates through the years (Steve Ferguson, Joey Spampinato, Al Anderson, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough) seamlessly integrated the foundational influences and idioms into their own classically structured, catchy, and ultimately timeless tunes.
The timeless factor, owing in part to Adams’ perpetual youthfulness and unselfconscious wackiness, is embodied in such songs as “Green Lights,” “Ridin’ in My Car,” “RC Cola and a Moon Pie,” “Me and the Boys,” “Rain at the Drive-In,” “I Want You Bad,” “Little Floater,” and “If I Don’t Have You.” It accounts for the consistent Q identity across five decades of music making with a shifting lineup, and it made it possible to organize these five CDs, packaged in a simple, cardboard fold-out folio with a straightforward booklet of photos and notes, in the loosest of narrative structures. The first disc, Everybody Say Yeah! (2005–2016), contains the most recent material, and the subsequent discs roughly encapsulate eras in the band’s history: Ain’t It All Right (1966–1970), Do You Feel It? (1971–1978), Me and the Boys (1977–1990), and Puddin’ Truck (1989–2004). Some fans, with good reason, favor the Al Anderson period (with Spampinato on bass and Tom Ardolino on drums) that spans Discs Two and Three, and features Big Al’s terse, blazing, idiosyncratic guitar solos, memorable compositions, and sweet, reedy vocals. Others, loyalists from the start, hold unshakable affection for the earlier times with guitarist Ferguson, when a rehearsal band from Kentucky developed spontaneously into the New Rhythm and Blues Quintet and eventually migrated to the Northeast, often adding the Whole Wheat Horns (anchored by Terry Adams’ trombone-playing brother Donn). And a strong case can be made for the bands of the past 27 years, when all the experience of previous decades coalesced beautifully and the recorded sound improved dramatically.
Then, now, and at every point in between, NRBQ has simply been a great rock ’n’ roll band—singing about girls, cars, and parties; privileging charm, innocence, and madcap humor over rebellion and darkness; and negotiating sometimes silly or saccharine pop sentiments, thundering backbeats, wild solos (piano, clavinet, guitar, sax), and Spike Jones-like accents with equal aplomb. Other bands with overlapping values and sounds have had more success and celebrity, but for 50 years, Adams and his crews have endured and endeared with peerless persistence, subsuming and transcending subgenres (from jump blues and rockabilly to pub rock and power pop), all for the love and joy of music.