Music Reviews: NRBQ’s ‘Turn On, Tune In,’ plus Steve Van Zandt, Donovan, and Che Apalache

Turn On Tune In - NRBQ

As I noted in a 2016 review, it’s a good thing that NRBQ are 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, Beatlesque 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. 

I should have added in my 2016 piece that “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. (My 2016 article, incidentally, concerned a five-disc 50-year retrospective release.) Well, keyboardist and co-founder 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.)

NRBQ are known for their live performances, and you’ll understand why after taking in the forthcoming 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 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.)

The program—more than half of which was written or co-written 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 setlist 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 & 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 they already have. As you can see in the WFMU concert video, however, they are having a lot of fun with this music. You probably would, too.

Also Noteworthy

Lilyhammer The Score

Little Steven & the Jazz Renegade Orchestra, Lilyhammer: The Score. Even fans of Stevie Van Zandt’s Sirius/XM radio show, Underground Garage, may be surprised by the versatility and eclectic tastes displayed in his soundtrack music for Netflix’s Lilyhammer series (in which he starred). Volume one focuses on jazz and includes a couple of vocal numbers (“My Kind of Town” and “Ring-a-Ding Ding!”) where Van Zandt (aka Little Steven) invades Frank Sinatra territory with surprising success. Then, on volume two (which is available separately), he and his band really let loose, incorporating elements of everything from rock, folk, and pop to surf music, Indian ragas, and Latin jazz. While the first disc exclusively features full-length performances, the second includes some snippets that arguably make the most sense in the context of the TV series. But both albums are consistently impressive and there are more than enough highlights on each of them to justify a purchase. 

Bottom Line 1976 Donovan

Donovan, Bottom Line 1976. Donovan was about seven years past the end of his period of peak popularity when he performed at New York’s Bottom Line in April 1976. But that period is well-represented in this 80-minute concert, which was aired live on FM radio and is being released on CD for the first time here. On the program are such hits as “Catch the Wind,” “Sunshine Superman,” “Mellow Yellow,” “There Is a Mountain,” “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” “Lalena,” and “Atlantis”; three tracks from Slow Down World, Donovan’s then soon-to-be-released 15th LP; and album standouts like “Young Girl Blues” and “Sunny Goodge Street” (respectively mislabeled here as “Saturday Night” and “My My They Sigh”). This isn’t the first of the more than half a dozen Donovan concert CDs I’d recommend—that might be The Classics Live (aka Rising), which features stronger backup and less filler—but it nevertheless offers more than a few pleasures.

Rearrange My Heart - Che Apalache

Che Apalache, Rearrange My Heart. It’s easy to see why the widely acclaimed banjo player Bela Fleck was so taken with Che Apalache that he signed on to produce their album. The quartet—led by a fiddler from North Carolina and featuring a guitarist and a mandolinist from Argentina as well as a banjo player from Mexico—has crafted a distinctive and well-honed style that melds Latin American and American roots music and incorporates some topical lyrics. (“The Wall,” for instance, is their a response to Donald Trump’s plan for the border with Mexico.) Che Apalache’s songs, some of which are sung in Spanish, variously recall acts as diverse as the Stanley Brothers, the legendary bluegrass duo, and the Kronos Quartet, who mix jazz and rock elements with classical music. That should give you an idea of how versatile they are. For more evidence of that—and a taste of their harmony vocals and instrumental prowess—check out the video below.

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