How Does a Band This Good Fly Under the Radar for 50 Years?

NRBQ – High Noon: A 50-year Retrospective (Omnivore Recordings) box set review

Odds are, you’ve never heard of NRBQ. So, a five-CD box set probably doesn’t make sense. Yet, in fact, it’s just the opposite – I can’t name a band that better deserves a multi-disc treatment like this. Omnivore Recordings has just issued High Noon: A 50-year Retrospective, the first-ever career-spanning collection of this criminally-ignored band.

If NRBQ were a household name, it would probably have meant that they had to compromise somewhere. And, that’s the beauty of this band – capable of virtually any genre – rock, country, blues, funk, even avant garde jazz, and they do them all with excellent musicianship.

Another aspect of the band that confounds most is that they remain impossible to label. A group that churns out party numbers like “RC Cola & a Moon Pie” and “Stomp” is equally adept at the tender “Ridin’ In My Car.” They did an entire album with wrestler Captain Lou Albano, but also frequently covered Sun Ra (what?).

Their prowess is everywhere – from the honky tonk of “Step Aside” to the jazzy “Benellie” to the jump blues of “That’s Neat, That’s Nice” and the reggae infused “Do You Feel It.”

The band had a tender side that showed in things like “Only You” and “Magnet” or the bouncy “It’s Not Too Late,” which should’ve been a hit. The jangly “It’s Not So Hard” sounds like a lost Byrds’ outtake, while “This Love is True” is absolutely gorgeous.

There were times they would retool old classics to their liking, like transforming the Rosemary Clooney nugget “This Ol House” into a drunken stomper, or giving muscle to the Eddie Cochran cover “C’mon Everybody.” Even better is their take of Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm,” turning an early rockabilly number into a pounding rocker.

There are plenty of completely out-there tracks too, like how the hell do you describe “Stay With We,” which starts as a smoky jazz number before crumbling into a sing-a-long “la la la la” chorus which is completely ridiculous? Or the grooving “Howard Johnson’s Got His Ho-Jo Workin’” or the absurd live track “You and I and George,” where the crowd seems downright bewildered, or the mostly-straight ahead “Talk to Me” that features a completely out of left field keyboard solo.

With all those left turns, NRBQ were still able to do straight-ahead rock, and “Me and the Boys,” “Green Lights,” and “I Want You Bad” are just a few examples of this approach.

Chock full of great songs, shoulda-been-hits, and some that will leave you scratching your head – High Noon sums up the genius that is NRBQ. —Tony Peters