A Fan's Notes: Three For the Road Print
Wednesday, 20 June 2007 17:58
Image By Chip Lovitt
A favorite song of mine is "The Road Goes on Forever (and the Party Never Ends)" by Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen. Sometimes it seems as if my concert schedule fits that description.

How many people get to see three of their favorite bands in a single month? I did recently. Then again, I have so many favorite bands, that's not as hard as it sounds.

There are some bands I've seen so much they're like old friends. NRBQ is one of those bands for me. I first saw NRBQ in 1970 when the band shared a double bill with the Byrds on the stage of my high school auditorium. Since then, I've seen the band dozens of times.

To us Q fans, NRBQ is one of the great bar bands of all time. And the reason was not because their music was bar-band quality. It was because they would take a gig at nearly any bar or dive as long as there was a paycheck in it. These guys were road warriors, playing hundreds of one-nighters a year.
When "Big Al" Anderson joined the band in 1971, replacing guitarist Steve Ferguson, it marked the beginning of a terrific new chapter in the band's history. Al's twangy Telecaster would grace some of the Q's greatest "hits," like "Green Lights," "Riding in My Car," "Me and the Boys," and many others. He was the perfect foil to the talents of founding members, keyboardist Terry Adams and bassist Joey Spampinato. For the next 22, years Big Al's big sound was a big part of their style and sound.

In 2004 I attended a 35th anniversary reunion concert in Northampton, Massachusetts that reunited all the band's original members, including Ferguson, and Big Al who had left the band in 1993 to become a successful Nashville-based songwriter. By 2004, the band had cut back on its touring schedule, so I didn't see them again for three years.

Then in spring of 2007, a 38th annual NRBQ reunion show was announced, again at the Calvin Theater in Northampton. A few months later, I was driving north to see the show, which again would bring Big Al back to share the guitar duties with Johnny Spampinato, Joey's little brother.

The party began even before I got to my motel room. Out in the motel parking lot, tailgaters blasted Q tunes out of their car stereos as beer flowed and barbecues began.

As expected, the concert was a great show and a great gathering of fans and friends.

The first set featured Al Anderson on lead guitar. Slinging his white Sadowsky Tele, Big Al's axe snapped, crackled, and popped. His solos, as always, were always right for the song, and like Terry Adam's wild and wacky keyboards and stage presence, his playing lent a joyful spirit to the music that many other bands can only envy.

The second set featured Johnny Spampinato on guitar. Wielding a left-handed purple Tele, Johnny, a fine player in his own right,johnny&johnsebastian_1999-130hcx.jpg proved that he was more than worthy to step into Big Al's big shoes. For the last set, the two guitarists played together and when the show ended at midnight, all us Q fans knew we had seen a very special show.

I had the same feeling a couple of weeks later when Elvis Costello and the Imposters came to the Nokia Theater in Times Square, in the heart of New York City. I've been a Costello fan since 1977 when I first heard his amazing debut album, "My Aim is True."

One of my mottos is a great band plus great tunes plus great guitarwork equals a great show, and Elvis and his band were firing on all three cylinders that night. Brandishing a Telecaster, a vintage Epiphone Casino, and his trademark Fender Jazzmaster, Elvis delivered a two-hour, 31-song treasure trove of great tunes from his 30-year career.

From the early songs like "Alison," "Red Shoes," and "Watching the Detectives," to mid-career classics like "Clubland," and "Man Out of Time," to the anthem, "What's So Funny 'bout Peace, Love, and Understanding," Costello proved that his reputation as one of the great rock songwriters of our time is more than merited.

bgr-2.jpg He has also developed into an excellent guitarist, more than capable of holding down both rhythm and lead parts, that while not flashy, provide the signature sound for much of the music.

His band, the Imposters, has to be one of the great backup bands as well. The Imposters are basically the Attractions but with newcomer Davey Farragher on bass. Both drummer Pete Thomas and keyboard wizard Steve Nieve have been with Elvis since the beginning, and after 30 years, they function like they're telepathic.

Nieve in particular is delight to hear and watch. With his black beard, shaggy hair and black glasses, he looks a bit like a mad scientist. But he is also a master of the keyboard, a musical alchemist able to channel Mozart, Mantovani and Jerry Lee Lewis, sometimes within a single song.

By all accounts, the show was a barnburner and no doubt will be on my top ten live list for 2007.

A week later, Steely Dan arrived in town for a series of sold-out shows at New York's Beacon Theater, and again, as a longtime Dan fan, I just had to be there. The Dan of Steel doesn't tour that much, so when they do it's an event. And as usual, Fagen and Becker and Company did not disappoint the faithful.

While the show featured some newer songs, the bulk of the songs were the classic hits, like "Dirty Work," "Aja," "Bad Sneakers," "Babylon Sisters," "Pretzel Logic," and "Haitian Divorce," which featured some fine wah-wah work from guitarist Walter Becker.

As every Dan fan knows, while Donald Fagen's keyboards and vocals are front and center in the band's sound, the band also has a history of great guitar work in its music. Whether it be Walter Becker, or studio aces like Larry Carlton and Dean Parks, or the band's current musical director, Jon Herrington, the guitarwork in a Steely Dan song is always imaginative and first-rate. It blends subtle, slinky, and intriguing horn-like lines that tap jazz influences, funky R&B stylings, and rock. Herrington artfully recreated the classic Carlton licks from "Josie," and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's ripping bebop-based solo from "Bodhisattva." His playing also lent a lent a new sheen and sparkle to the more recent material.

The New York Times review the next day would praise the show, but the headline qualified it by saying fans had been "Tolerating the New Tunes, But Exulting in the Old."

The truth, however, is that the fans-me included-loved every minute of the show and there wasn't a single song in the set that did not hold the audience's attention. Let's face it, the Steely Dan catalog-songs like "Aja," "Josie," and all those other classic cuts-are quite a tough act to follow. The newer songs may not be as memorable, but they have their charms as well.

At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it.