NRBQ’s ‘Turn On, Tune In’ Review: Virtually Unclassifiable

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It’s a good thing that NRBQ is known by their initials rather than their full name, which is New Rhythm and Blues Quartet (or, originally, Quintet). Their music can sound like avant-garde jazz one minute, Beatles-influenced rock the next and rockabilly the next, and it draws on enough other styles to make it virtually unclassifiable. Rhythm and blues is in the mix at times, but to call them an R&B group would be more than a little misleading.

“New” doesn’t belong in the moniker, either, at least not these days: the group formed in 1965 and 1966, which means they’ve now been making music for more than half a century. Well, keyboardist and cofounder Terry Adams has been around that long, anyway: the other current members—guitarist Scott Ligon, bassist Casey McDonough and drummer John Perrin, the only non-vocalist—have all signed on within about the past dozen years. (Judging by appearances, at least one of them was probably still in diapers after the group had been performing for several decades.)

Related: One big fan of “The Q” is the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, who often guested with them

NRBQ is known for their live performances, and you’ll understand why after taking in the new Turn On, Tune In, which is at least their dozenth concert album. It captures a 15-song set before a small audience in the studios of WFMU, an appropriately adventurous New Jersey freeform radio station, and a six-song performance on Sirius/XM. And there’s a noteworthy bonus: the CD and LP versions of the release both come bundled with a DVD of the WFMU show. (The sound and picture aren’t hi-def, but the audio is nevertheless excellent, and the video is widescreen.)

Watch the trailer from the album

The program—more than half of which was written or cowritten by Adams—favors NRBQ’s rock/pop side and melds group staples to previously unrecorded material. In the former category are such exuberant, upbeat numbers as “Can’t Wait to Kiss You,” “It Feels Good” and “Keep This Love Goin’,” which all sound as if they could have been products of a British Invasion outfit. Also here: “Don’t Ever Change,” an early Goffin/King creation that the Beatles once performed; a cover of the Beach Boys’ great “Don’t Worry Baby” that likely made the set list as a result of McDonough’s recent side gig as a vocalist on Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds world tour; the instrumental “Red River Rock,” the organ showcase that provided a top-five 1959 hit for Johnny and the Hurricanes; and “Wilderness Road,” a song from that same year by folksinger Jimmy Driftwood.

This isn’t NRBQ’s most diverse set, and it seems likely that nothing here has what it would take to deliver the band to a wider audience than it already has. As you can see in the WFMU concert video, however, they are having a lot of fun with this music. You probably would, too.

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Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger's website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.
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