Files of marching mist-men, wraiths robed in fog, stalked the valleys of the Green Mountains as I drove to Brattleboro Saturday. They seemed spooky, spectral; until I decided they were the ghosts of the plague, leaving town, and unease turned to relief.
I was going to see NRBQ for the first time in way too long, so driving through the rain on roads twisty-slick as a wet corkscrew was part of a happy pilgrimage.
Brattleboro’s Stone Church is just that, a former Unitarian church minimally modified by adding a bar, sound and lights. Its website merchandise page offers the usual shirts, caps and mugs, but also face-masks and rolling papers.
My brother Jim Hoke suggested I see the sound check; a guest on hundreds of NRBQ shows and a dozen albums, he knows. The crew, led by longtime stage manager John Krucke, had set up amps, mics and monitors. Saxophonist/singer/accordionist Klem Klimek fitted a reed to his alto and greeted me as casually if I’d been there the previous night for the ‘Q’s first show in 15 months. Next came bassist/singer Casey McDonough, a Chicagoan like guitarist Scott Ligon and drummer John Perrin. McDonough said, “It’s wonderful!” to play together again. “I can’t believe it’s happening!” Ligon and I shared our relief at being back together again at a gig. “It’s good to BE,” he said. Pianist/co-founder-leader Terry Adams came in, hugged me, called me Brother Mike, then tended to piano and clavinet.
“At sound check, they’re musicians,” Jim had said. “In the show, they’re performers, and there’s a difference.” I saw that as Klimek squeezed out a vaguely Latin accordion riff. The guys listened, not for very long, and fell into a tune that wasn’t there minutes before. They quickly had it, so they stopped. Klimek called it “Mexican Puck Dance.” Puck is his dog. I think he wants people hearing him call it to think he’s yelling something else.
The sound-check version was fresher and more fun than the version in the show, but I digress.
Downstairs in the dressing room, we could hear fans filing into the Church as we talked of the plague. Everybody stayed busy. Klimek played with bands and singers on Cape Cod. Ligon and McDonough finished a Flat Five (their other band) album in Chicago. Adams lovingly compiled the last recorded work of founding ‘Q guitarist Steve Ferguson. But Adams also said the isolation felt productive only to a point. “I couldn’t see anybody, I didn’t see anybody!”
Back upstairs, I was surprised to see many fans and staff wearing masks, although Vermont has highest vaccination rate of any state. But, this was The Stone Church’s first show in more than a year. Then, gradually, many masks came off, and I recognized fans from decades of ‘Q shows across New England.
From the first beat, it was clear the guys had been practicing.
They started with a perfect choice; “Do You Feel It?” Did we ever! Everybody loved them, felt 14 again and got happy. The ‘Q was in a great mood so it had that feedback loop thing where a happy crowd inspires a happy band and vice versa, until you think the whole building would levitate. It felt like an adrenaline tornado in a funhouse.
Folks eased into dancing, doing the Writhe, the White Youth, the Octopus, the Hippie With A Touch of Arthritis, the Frat-house Drunk, the Peyote Temple, the Tennis Elbow, the Magic-Mushroom Monster Mash.
Song by song, it went like this:
“Do You Feel It?” A great greeting-invitation-affirmation. And, yeah, we did
“This Flat Tire” Wry ‘Q whimsy, with big lift-off in Ligon’s guitar solo
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” Terrific vocal from McDonough on this Beach Boys classic; he sang it on a Brian Wilson tour
“Call of the Wild” Adams sang this seduction tune, plaintively but proudly
“Flat Foot Flewzy” Adams starred here, too, but with a blistering piano break, first tune that hit that irresistible caffeinated rockabilly groove
“This Love is True” Then it was sweet time; Ligon crooning the vocal and Adams’ octave piano runs on the coda the essence of swing
“Let’s Keep This Love Going” Cruising upbeat with the same sentiment, this also had the same strengths vocally and instrumentally
“Moonlight Serenade” Adams recounted his parents’ anniversary-vows renewal to intro this mellow Glenn Miller slow-dance serenade, then etched a Valentine of a piano solo
“Can’t Wait to Kiss You” An upbeat love-song, Ligon strong at the mic
“Leavin’ It All Up To You” Harmony vocals lit up this vintage country hesitation waltz
“That’s Neat That’s Nice” Two heart-pumping Perrin drum breaks and Klimek’s tenor solo bounced this upbeat rocker behind Adams’ vocal
“Hobbies” An oblique melody, and plenty strange
Jim Hoke put it this way: “…The tune of it – especially those first five ‘ah’s – are in a different key than…the instruments… It’s very hard to sing. I’ve never figured it out and would have a hard time singing it even if I knew what the notes are…You could refer to that tune as being poly-tonal, from a different neighborhood….”
“Turn Turn Turn” Yeah, the Byrds’ classic, with three-part harmony and Ligon echoing that familiar chiming guitar sound
After a break, they came back upstairs to happy cheers and did this:
“Shaggy Dog” Perrin strapped on a guitar and sang this upbeat rocker, and pretty well, while Ligon jumped on the drum kit
“Rain at the Drive-In” A teen-romance recollection with right-now sweetness
“Mouthwaterin’” Klimek’s tenor sax starred in this rollicking instrumental
“Don’t Ever Change” This began a very pretty run of three love songs
“Things to You” McDonough sang at his sincere, plainspoken best in this original ‘Q masterpiece; their simplest melody ever, and most simply beautiful
“All I Have to Do is Dream” The Everly Brothers’ timeless love-as-salvation tune; this is the B-side of the new NRBQ single – yes, a single! – “I’m Not Here”
“Howard Johnson’s Got His Ho-Jo Working” McDonough at the mic again in this careening, joyful romp
Then came an instrumental I didn’t recognize, built on the same chords as “Ho-Jo”
“Never is a Long Long Time” This love song in turn had the same momentum as the instrumental just before
“Mexican Puck Dance” Klimek’s fractured Latin-polka accordion instrumental, invented at sound check
“Yes I Have a Banana” McDonough sang this deceptively straight, turning “Yes, I Have No Bananas” inside out
“A Smile and A Ribbon In My Hair” Adams sang this with just the right antique swing
“Don’t Talk About My Music” Ligon howled this warning with fiery rock and roll defiance
“You Got Me Goin’” Klimek sang powerhouse lead here
“The Great State of Texas” Wow. The saddest waltz, ever. Ligon took over the stage to sing this alone at the piano, a surprise punch-line lament written by his brother Chris and heard on a Flat Five album
“Honey Hush” How amazing that Ligon could recover from “Texas” to rub righteous rock and roll mojo all over this classic, a chestnut stretched by an energetic Adams piano romp, Klimek’s tenor blast and Ligon’s stun-strum guitar blitz
“Ain’t it Alright” Ligon also lit up this rockabilly romp with fast-spinning wheels and loud exhaust
“I Want You Bad” Like the love-song trio in the first set, this overdrive run built momentum song to song. This had standout fast-clatter drumming, an insistent vocal from Ligon and the same deep-groove energy as the previous two high-octane tunes – a dynamite set-closer.
By-now-crazed fans seemed to know the dressing room was directly downstairs; everybody stomped on the floor, hard, in time, for an encore.
They came back and Adams led off “Magnet” with a big piano intro, like Chopin getting the blues, then McDonough sang it strong. They let us down easy with “Be My Love” – yeah, the dramatic 50s ballad; all intimate, cozy.
Then Adams announced, “That was our last song” and they headed off. But the crowd went intensely bat-shit, boo-ing or laughing. So the guys stopped to confer at the edge of the stage. After a few minutes, Adams announced, “We talked it over, and yeah – that was our last song” and they resumed their march off-stage.
But then they stopped, turned around, grabbed up their instruments and did “Next Stop Brattleboro” with super-tasty Adams piano.
The pained “Playing With My Heart,” “Chicken Hearted” with its rueful “I should have been honest” refrain, and the touching paean to fidelity “Boozoo and Leona” built as beautifully as the two previous three-song suites.
Looking for the familiar set-list format? (They don’t use one: Adams calls the show song by song or sometimes just starts playing a tune without cueing the boys. But I digress.) Here you go:
“Be My Love”
“Next Stop Brattleboro”
“Playin’ With My Heart”
“Boozo and Leona”
NRBQ plays Friday, Aug. 27 at the Bearsville Theater outside Woodstock.
Before the plague, NRBQ was matchless musical fun. No other band was as agile, as magical; so playfully capable of tugging any tune, any style, from a bottomless top hat of inspiration and boisterous, bouncy zip. And no other band so visibly, so credibly, meant every note and nuance, played from and directly to the soul.
Now, the plague is receding; no fateful robed wraiths came in sight as I drove in the wet dark from Brattleboro to my friends’ home in Northampton. There, good company and a nice bourbon awaited, my first overnight visit in more than a year.
And NRBQ is still that band. There may be no more hopeful sign of the world waking up, and maybe none could ever sound as good.