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‘C’mon if you’re comin!’: NRBQ announces two June concerts in Maine

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‘C’mon if you’re comin!’: NRBQ announces two June concerts in Maine (Photo courtesy MP Ball)

Fresh off an April tour with Bonnie Raitt, legendary band NRBQ has announced two June concerts in Maine that will undoubtedly go down as unique and unpredictable evenings for audience and band alike.

Operating without a prepared list of songs but drawing from a body of work made up of many hundreds of possibilities dating back to the 1960s, the group says they’ll give the audience what they need, first at Jonathan’s in Ogunquit on Sunday, June 5, then at the Chocolate Church Arts Center in Bath on Friday, June 10.

Led by co-founder Terry Adams, NRBQ has existed in some form since 1965; their 23 studio albums, including the recently released “Dragnet,” represent an extraordinary framework of original genre-jumping riches encompassing rock and roll, rockabilly, country, swing, jazz, blues, pop, boogie-woogie and any combination thereof.

The current iteration of the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet has been intact since 2015 and includes Adams, guitarist Scott Ligon, bassist Casey McDonough and drummer John Perrin.

Ligon has been playing with Terry Adams since 2007, first as a member of Adams’s “Rock and Roll Quartet.” When the bandleader felt that his musicians were worthy of carrying on the NRBQ legacy, he reinstated the band name that had been idle since a 2004 cancer scare had necessitated a break for successful treatment.

“I wanted Terry to be in a situation where he feels comfortable playing any song he’s ever written and I knew that going in,” Ligon told The Maine Edge during an interview. “But sometimes I do get surprised by what he calls for onstage. It could be something we haven’t played for five years.”

It's standard procedure for many bands to essentially perform the same show from night to night and city to city. The songs, lighting cues and even the in-between song patter remain constant. But that’s never been the NRBQ way.

Ligon laughs as he thinks about an NRBQ show performed in Chicago in early April just before the group joined Bonnie Raitt for a two-and-a-half-week tour.

“We hadn’t played since New Year’s Day, but we got together at my house to rehearse and learn some new songs. So the very first song Terry called for at the first show back was a song none of us had played in about four years (laughs). There was no mention of it on the way to the stage, he just starts playing it.”

Bassist Casey McDonough concurs regarding the element of danger at play at an NRBQ show.

“We never play the same show twice and we don’t know when something is going to come up and catch us off guard,” he says. “It definitely keeps you on your toes but that’s something I’ve always gravitated to in my own bands. It’s that feeling of being on a tightwire or out on a limb musically and having to figure out how to get back.”

NRBQ has always been known for virtuosic musicality from heavy hitter players and songwriters like the band’s original guitarist Steve Ferguson (1966-1972), “Big” Al Anderson (1974-1994), bassist Joey Spampinato (1967-2004) and drummer Tommy Ardolino (1974-2004).

That tradition continues with today’s NRBQ lineup. Drummer John Perrin, like McDonough, entered NRBQ’s orbit through Scott Ligon. The story of his arrival, not to mention Ligon’s and McDonough’s deputization into the band, involves almost a supernatural case of kismet worthy of “The Twilight Zone.”

On a personal note, I’ll share with you that some of my most significant musical memories originated at NRBQ shows.

I think of how fortunate I was to have caught a show during the 1990s when they busted out “The Magic Box,” a form of ‘stump the band’ where any song by any artist was in contention if they pulled your suggestion from the box. They didn’t pull mine (“I Am the Walrus”) but I did get a taste of Led Zeppelin, “Brandy” by Looking Glass and the theme from “Mission Impossible.”

I also recall a show after which a younger nerdier version of myself approached Joey Spampinato with an NRBQ poster and a Sharpie. He took them from my hands, said “Thanks man!” and walked about 5 steps before turning around with a huge smile. He returned the poster to me after he’d had Terry, Tom, and his brother Johnny add their signatures to his.

When Terry Adams announced in 2011 via a letter published online that he was about to launch a new version of NRBQ, I admit that I was skeptical. It seemed impossible to me that he could ever find the right players that could measure up to what had made that name so sacred to me. I shouldn’t have doubted him.

With Ligon, McDonough and Perrin, Terry has a band that operates on his level, with his sense of feeling and intuition, and with each bringing their own gifts as multi-instrumentalists, singers, songwriters, humorists and trusted executors of the NRBQ legend.

Regarding his bandmates, Adams made it clear when I spoke with him last fall for a story coinciding with the release of “Dragnet,” that he knows how fortunate he is to have found this lot.

“Nothing means more to me than the band but I’ve always been like that,” he said, adding “I hate to see a band change, I hate it when someone leaves but then something better always happens. You get over it and move on. These guys are the best musicians I’ve ever played with.”

When I shared Terry’s words with Scott and Casey, they were clearly moved. Each paused at length as that quote settled in. They (and Perrin) came to the band as fierce fans of the musicians who’d preceded them and it probably felt a little surreal to consider the significance of Adams’s words.

(photo by John Krucke)

An interview with Scott Ligon and Casey McDonough of NRBQ

Ligon and McDonough have been playing together in various bands since 2003 when Ligon moved from Peoria to Chicago. In addition to their lives in NRBQ, Scott and Casey are part of the Chicago-based powerhouse pop vocal group The Flat Five and the honky-tonk harmonizers known as The Western Elstons.

The Maine Edge: You were a big fan of NRBQ before you joined the band. What did the band mean to you, and now that you’ve been part of that legacy, how does that feel?

Scott Ligon: I guess I always had some kind of inkling that I was somehow supposed to be involved with this thing. I always kind of felt that when I was younger but it was a very strange feeling and I think my friends probably thought I was nuts. I think my wife Sharon always thought I was going to end up doing this because I’ve carried it around with me for a long time.

I’ve always been in bands, I’ve never done anything but play music but I’ve always had this NRBQ thing sort of hanging over me. Have you ever met someone or see someone from a distance and you just had a feeling about this person like you’re going to be friends with this person? That’s how I felt about Terry. There was something about him that seemed strangely familiar.

I was introduced to NRBQ by my brother Chris who’s 12 years older than I am. When I was a kid he started writing all of these odd songs and he’d always include me if I wanted to be involved. One day he just walked into my room and put this album on by NRBQ called “God Bless Us All” (recorded live in Providence, Rhode Island, in April 1987). He didn’t tell me anything about it, we just started listening and I really responded to it.

A few weeks later he sent me a cassette tape with the first three songs off (1977 NRBQ album) “At Yankee Stadium” and I just flipped. I just thought ‘Oh my God, how did I not know this band?’ I had been playing music for years at that point but NRBQ seemed somehow familiar yet completely new at the same time.

When I actually went to go see them I had the same reaction to Terry. To me, he seemed like an older, older brother. Chris is tall, thin and blonde and has this interesting funny personality and Terry seemed like an extension of that somehow. I felt this strange familiarity to a lot of the music being played by NRBQ and I always had this feeling that if I ever had the opportunity to play guitar for this band, I could just fit right in. But of course it never happens the way you imagine it will.

As far as what it’s like to be in the band, it’s like regular life now but I haven’t lost that awe, that feeling of “Wow, that really did happen.” It’s an honor to be part of this tradition that’s been going on for so long.

Casey McDonough: Beforehand there was so much to take in with NRBQ, with the incredible catalog, the different lineups and all of the great writers that have been with the band. Then there’s the sheer fun that they have with being so musical. All of that was informing me and was really great to latch onto. Getting to play this music with Terry has been really incredible. I’ll have moments on-stage where I almost forget we’re performing when I realize ‘Wow, he wrote this song. This song didn’t exist then he wrote it, or Joey wrote it or Al wrote it. There are just so many great songs to play.

TME: Scott, how did you first meet Terry?

Ligon: NRBQ had gone quiet for about 3 or 4 years (beginning in 2004) and I was busy doing my own thing with The Flat Five. We were just getting started when I saw this ad in the Chicago Reader that said ‘At Fitzgeralds: Terry Adams with Steve Ferguson and Tom Ardolino’ and I thought ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to be at this show.’

Fitzgerald’s is located in Berwyn (Chicago suburb) which is where I live now and the first time I ever played at that club was opening for NRBQ back in 1997. My wife and I were married there. I’d gotten to know Bill Fitzgerald, the owner, very well so I called and asked him if The Flat Five could be the opening band for Terry, Steve and Tom.

So we did the opening set and I had an opportunity to talk with Terry that night. We had a nice conversation and just hit it off. About four months later I got this message on my answering machine: ‘Scott, this is Terry Adams, your leader, I’m calling you, call me back.’ Incredibly, that night when we first it off, Terry hadn’t actually heard me play the guitar because we were sitting in a back corner playing around on a piano. So he ended up calling me to ask me to play guitar in NRBQ based on about three minutes of hearing me play the piano at Fitzgerald’s at 2:00 am. It was an amazing thing how it all happened.

TME: I think the fans feel a real sense of closeness among the four of you.

McDonough: It’s definitely real. We’re all pals and it’s such a treat to do this especially now after it had been taken away from everybody for 18 months or however long it was. Any opportunity we get to do this and have a ball makes anything else we might be going through just melt away.

Ligon: Even the way I met John is similar to how some of these other relationships developed in my life with people that I’m supposed to know. We lost a drummer a few years ago when Conrad Choucroun had three kids in a period of about four years. He couldn’t do it any longer and we were presented with a tough situation, especially for this band. This isn’t something that can be learned. Conrad had been a fan of the band for his entire adult life. We’d had a couple of other musicians that had also been big fans but had some health issues and had to leave.

Casey had just entered the fray and I was back here in Chicago where I got a call from a friend of mine, Joel Paterson, a guitarist here in Chicago (and bandmate of Scott and Casey’s in The Western Elstons). He said he had a gig up in this ski lodge in northern Wisconsin. It was an Elvis thing and was I interested to come up and play piano in this weekend gig? To be totally honest I wasn’t interested in taking part in some Elvis impersonator thing. He said ‘It’s way up there and nobody’s going to see you’ (laughing). He was kind of pleading for me to do it for him so he would have a comrade in arms up there so I reluctantly accepted and went up there.

As I was loading my gear into the space we’d be playing in, there was a kid setting up a drum kit. He came up to me and said ‘Hey Scott, I’m a big fan of yours. My name is John, I love NRBQ and my dad has been a big fan since 1977, and I love The Flat Five and the Western Elstons’ and he kept going on and on. It was like he knew my whole life, it was really weird. I thought ‘Who is this guy?’ It turned out that he was 22 years old at the time.

We ended up playing the show that night and he knew that (Elvis) music better than anybody so I was really impressed with this kid. We stood outside talking about music that night for two hours and it was like he had been sent from somewhere. Within 6 months he was the drummer for NRBQ. It’s wild how people find each other. That was something I could have so easily decided against. My better judgment was telling me not to go to Wisconsin and we wouldn’t have met. You never know what can happen in life and there is a lot of this kind of thing going on among us.

After I’d played quite a few shows with Casey, I discovered I’d actually met him when I was a kid. One night he said “I went to “Beatle Fest” this weekend. It’s a big convention for Beatles fans and I told him I hadn’t been to one of those in about 20 years and that my band won the battle of the bands at “Beatle Fest” when I was 12 years old. He just stopped and said “I know you.” We had actually battled it out as teenagers at that “Beatle Fest.”

There are a lot of strange coincidences and a definite feeling of this is the way things were meant to be in this band.

TME: How was the April tour with Bonnie Raitt and her band?

McDonough: That was a riot, a real gas. Bonnie is such a great person and such a warm, generous performer. She and her entire band made us feel so welcome. It was a different kind of tour for sure playing 40 minute sets on larger stages and in bigger rooms than we’re probably accustomed to. We’re used to responding and reacting and responding to each other right in that second. When you’re that far away from each other and the sound is bouncing off a wall that’s a block away, your reaction times are a little different and it made me have to focus a little bit more.

Ligon: Bonnie is such a great person, a real person. She and Terry have been friends for a long, long time, since the 1960s. I was so pleased and happy that I was able to do that tour. She just sounds fantastic. I can’t tell you how great her voice sounds at 72. The shows were all great and we just had a lot of fun.

TME: You’ve played a few shows here in Maine over the years. Do any memories stand out from earlier visits?

Ligon: No (laughs). I’m the worst guy to ask about any particular gig because I can’t place moments with cities. I remember what happens at the show but I don’t remember where we were when it happened. It has nothing to do with Maine. I think Maine is a beautiful place and I’d love to do some vacationing there. Casey is much more qualified to answer that question because of his amazing memory.

McDonough: I think the last time we played at Jonathan’s in Ogunquit was right after a presidential election when it seemed that our jobs were never more clear. It was up to us to get out there and make people feel good. Who’s going to make us feel good? We’ll do that at the same time.

A couple of years ago we played a blues fest at Old Orchard Beach. Everything surrounding that gig was a lot of fun. We got in the night before and took a walk and had a great time.

TME: I think this applies to each of you. You guys really feel music and I think maybe Terry picked up on that when he was getting to know you. He’s lived his life doing what feels right instead of what is expected of him and he probably recognizes that trait in other people.

Ligon: I think you’re probably right about that. I think he’d be able to recognize in other people if they are singularly focused on one thing. I think most of the guys in NRBQ that have been in this band over the years weren’t really capable of doing much else in life (laughs). My friend Kelly Hogan (of The Flat Five) always describes Casey and myself as people who are unfit to deliver pizza (laughing) and that’s kind of true. We sort of ended up this way.

(Tickets for NRBQ’s performance at Jonathan’s Ogunquit on June 5 are available at https://tickets.jonathansogunquit.com/. Tickets for NRBQ’s performance at the Chocolate Church Arts Center in Bath on June 10 are available at www.ChocolateChurchArts.org.)

Last modified on Friday, 27 May 2022 10:01

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