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NRBQ: The Most Famous Unknown Band

The ABC’s of the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet

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It’s Saturday night at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom, and one of the world’s greatest bands is ripping through a spirited set. A packed house—including a few folks who look like they’ve been fans since the ’60s—sings along. Is it the Stones? The Who? No, it’s the graybeards of NRBQ.

The New Rhythm and Blues Quartet is an American treasure, revered by a cult following including R.E.M., Keith Richards, Elvis Costello, and other connoisseurs of great music. The Nov. 20 show (along with another the next night) marked the band’s 30th year, and on Sept. 14, they released their 23rd album, NRBQ, considered by many to be among their best work. ”We have more fans now than ever,” says bassist-singer Joey Spampinato. ”When people get what we’re doing, it’s not like they move on and stop liking us.”

Just what do they do? ”The indescribable,” says keyboardist-singer Terry Adams (the rest of the quartet is guitarist Johnny Spampinato and drummer Tom Ardolino). ”It’s just natural music, but people try to describe it by making up things.” Goofball power-roots, maybe? Wacky jazz-pop? NRBQ’s sound references most forms of American popular music, all filtered through their odd sense of humor. As Adams notes, few bands have played the Berlin Jazz and New York Folk festivals, the Grand Ole Opry, and Fillmore West.

To that list, add an appearance on The Simpsons (Nov. 28). What would the Simpsons think of a Q show? ”Lisa would appreciate it musically; Bart would like the musical rebelliousness,” says Simpsons exec producer Mike Scully, a Q fan for 27 years. ”Marge would say it’s too loud; Homer would like the beer.”