Road Trip: Four Days on NRBQ Standard Time

NRBQ  photo by Michael Hochanadel
The expanded Terry Plays Monk and... Band at soundcheck

Story and photographs by Michael Hochanadel

“Terry, let me pull your coat.” Terry Adams sat beside me in the only coffee shop open in Brattleboro on Easter Sunday. I’d used jazz jargon advisedly: I’d been touring with NRBQ since Thursday in Burlington where Adams led both a special combo and NRBQ through “Terry Plays Monk and…” – a tribute to Thelonious Monk. As we waited for Billy Shaw to open Soundesign Studios where Adams and crew would record the Monk tunes they’d played at FlynnSpace in Burlington, I told Adams about the guy who sat next to me there. A greybeard about my age, he’d never heard of NRBQ: He’d come to hear Monk music. He’d seen Miles and ‘Trane live but never saw Monk play. After the show, he said it was the best live music he’d seen in 20 years.

NRBQ  photo by Michael Hochanadel
Terry Adams' cross-handed piano technique

THURSDAY, 4/5/12

I didn’t know I’d be taking the ferry across Lake Champlain on Thursday until my bossy GPS said, “Get on the ferry,” a fitting start to witness a crossing Adams made from rock to jazz. He actually started this pilgrimage at 14 on falling in love with Monk’s music, and he’s played Monk tunes with NRBQ for decades. But he raised expectations and the pressure on himself by announcing a whole set of Monk songs, lamenting on taking this mission that he wouldn’t sleep for six weeks.

Driving through the Adironacks, I’d gotten more and more excited. The landscape gleamed: Snow lingered on peaks and ridges while gaps in the clouds let light fall onto lakes and ponds like bright coins onto a burnished table. The music plan promised big: Adams would lead a special jazz combo, including my brother Jim, through a set of Monk tunes, then tackle more Monk music with NRBQ, mixing in NRBQ songs.

Adams had to scramble to pull it all together. He finished mixing the new live NRBQ album “We Travel the Spaceways” just before rehearsing the Monk combo for three days in Northampton. That’s where I delivered a pedal steel guitar on Palm Sunday for my brother Jim Hoke to play, borrowing the steel and an amp from Kevin Maul in Cohoes. Still, the players were tense at FlynnSpace in Burlington (the black-box theatre under the Flynn Center) during sound check and a last rehearsal.

“Let’s liven it up a little,” Adams urged after an accurate but low-energy run-through of a typically knotty number, and they did. It was crisp and snarky in the show, while the ballads caressed and charmed, and the up-tunes jumped. In “Children’s Song (That Old Man),” Jim played ocarina and steel and in “Monk’s Mood,” he played harmonica wearing fingerpicks, then shifted to steel. Then he grabbed his alto sax to snarl, go lyrical or set up a dissonant ruckus beside saxophonist Klem Klimek. Drummer Conrad Choucroun, bassists Pete Toigo (acoustic) and Pete Donnelly (electric) swung and rocked Monk’s elastic beats, and Scott Ligon played jaunty guitar fills and percussion. Adams ring-mastered this mighty, mood-shifting Monk circus, exploding in the jump tunes and gentling, obliquely at times, through the ballads.

Awed promoter Don Shelton said he was speechless after the first set as he introduced the (NRBQ) second. Everybody seemed looser, more confident, the weight of occasion lifted somewhat; though they tackled plenty of Monk tunes. The players gave each other encouraging shout-outs, and Adams talked more. He recalled presenting Monk the first NRBQ album and asking Monk’s opinion despite patroness Panonica’s warning that Monk might be harsh, dismissive. Adams proudly reported Monk had said, “He’s alright.” This came near the end of the show as Adams led NRBQ through vintage numbers “Stay With We” and “Yes, Yes, Yes,” but Donnelly sang the new “Let Go” with the same sweet flavor. “I Don’t Know Why I Love You But I Do” and “A Smile and a Ribbon” – Adams cracking up in one verse and missing his cue – maintained the set’s antique flavor, and “That’s Neat, That’s Nice” rocked to a triumphant close before Toigo rejoined for a beefy Monk encore.

Afterward, the players seemed relieved, enjoying big praise from fans including producer Hal Willner who flew in from New York for the show then back to run the Saturday Night Live Band, Shirley Haun from Vancouver and artist Robin Heidi Kennedy, who sculpted the dummies for NRBQ’s “Dummy” album cover and, we discovered at the show, rode the same ferry across Lake Champlain earlier that day as I had.

NRBQ  photo by Michael Hochanadel
NRBQ rocks the Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry
NRBQ  photo by Michael Hochanadel
Guitarist Scott Ligon gets jaunty

FRIDAY, 4/6/12

Jim, Klem and I stayed up late at the hotel sipping Irish whiskey, but we were ready for a beautifully scenic road trip to Londonderry, NH for the second show after breakfast in a diner full of fans greeting band members. Spring hit Nashville way earlier than Vermont so bare trees and snow melting on north-facing slopes gave Jim a late taste of winter. We jammed on the brakes, left the car beside the highway, climbed fences and clambered down two steep, brambly slopes to the Winooski Wonder Bridge, a pedestrian suspension bridge spanning the rushing river – like kids again, back in rural Guilderland.

My GPS got us to sound check late at the Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry, via an industrial park, then a firehouse. I was worried until Jill Christiansen (credited as “Aide-de-Camp” in NRBQ’s new “We Travel the Spaceways” album) said Adams was napping; he hadn’t been able to sleep after the Burlington show.

NRBQ set up without him; but when he arrived at show time, all hell broke loose. This 30-song-plus blow-out was the best I’ve seen the new NRBQ play. It was a big wow all the way, with the matchless sort of uplift that made us all feel 14 again. The show had inspired song choices and tremendous performances. There was a loose, galloping ease to the up tunes – notably thrilling blasts through “Little Floater,” “RC Cola and Moon Pie” and “Me and the Boys” – and a smooth, serene glide to the mid-tempo and slow ones: “Florida,” “Let Go” and the last encore “Sitting In the Park.” Adams noted they’d played “27 and a half” Monk tunes in Burlington and played a few this night, too: “Ruby My Dear” was terrific. The crowd hummed the wordless parts of “Hobbies;” Christiansen, who’s probably seen more NRBQ shows than anyone, said she’d never seen this before. Adams pronounced the crowd “a lovely audience,” cautioning “…so far…” – and they rose to the challenge and in growing numbers to their feet.

NRBQ  photo by Michael Hochanadel
Multi-talented Jim Hoke settles in at the pedal steel guitar
NRBQ  photo by Michael Hochanadel
Terry Adams addresses the audience

SATURDAY, 4/7/12

Jim and I hit White River Junction early enough to walk down to the water in the steep, deep Queechee Gorge, locate our motel on the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River and grab some pizza before sound check at Tupelo Music Inn, the second such venue on this swing. This was the best venue of the three: biggest stage, best lights and sound.

The Hall was tucked into one end of the former train station; at the other was a good restaurant where Jim and I dined with Dennis Meehan, Jim’s friend from both his high school days here and making music in Oklahoma (as “Clovis Roblaine,” Meehan played with Ray Wylie Hubbard and the Cowboy Twinkies), and musician Rick Morse who’d brought friends from the Capital Region for this show.

Everybody was happy, relaxed and ready to rock after the tremendous Londonderry show on Friday; and Saturday was almost as hot. NRBQ served up top tunes including the Monk gems “Eronel” and “Hornin’ In,” saxes vividly losing their minds and flying free from earth; and ‘Q faves including the opening Cajun chug of “Boozoo and Leona,” the rockers “Honey Hush,” “Howard Johnson” (one of Klem Klimek’s big vocals; “Get a Grip” was even bigger), another great “Little Floater,” and a rollicking “That’s Neat, That’s Nice” late, before big encores – prompted by a huge “NRBQ!” chant – of “Green Lights,” “12 Bar Blues” and “Get Rhythm.” The sweet ones worked well, too: Donnelly’s “When I Get Home” and “Let Go,” and “Keep this Love Goin’,” title track of the most recent studio album, and Adams’ best vocal of the night.

Saturday snapshots: Adams spoke of the many Vermont towns with “B” names: Bennington, Brattleboro, Burlington and others, then claimed Burlington was named for Burl Ives, launching the ‘Q into an impromptu “Holly Jolly Christmas.” He launched “Ain’t It Alright” urging “Let’s rock a bit,” but they rocked a LOT! – with a titanic guitar solo. The saxes formed chords then flew apart into dissonant roars in “We Travel the Spaceways.” Adams played back-to-back killer piano solos in “Honey Hush” and “When You Come Home.” I don’t know that Jim planned to play steel on “Magnet” until its lyrics about magnets and steel kicked in; then he jumped all over it. My sister in law Gussie came to the show from Maine with her friend Carol, neither knowing what to expect. They got it, immediately, and jumped up after the second song and never sat down again. I’ve never felt so good about getting anybody tickets to anything!

After the show, we all drifted back to the hotel, the lights of White River Junction glinting on the river as we clustered around a picnic table filled with dressing room beers, wine and the last of my Irish whiskey. Everyone was in high spirits: NRBQ and guests knew how well they’d played and we fans did, too. All three shows were packed and all three were wonderful. It occurred to me that NRBQ plays as they do because they’re all singers, including guests Jim and Klem. The music breathes, with a human-ness that’s rare and can’t be faked.

NRBQ  photo by Michael Hochanadel
Jim Hoke has fun with heavy things
NRBQ  photo by Michael Hochanadel
Terry Adams warms up at Soundesign studio

SUNDAY, 4/8/12

Low clouds spat snow and rain as we hit the road for Brattleboro. Jim and I drove back roads along the river, crossing from New Hampshire through a covered bridge for breakfast at a perfect diner in Windsor, Vermont. We watched over coffee mugs as families left a tall white church, toting tulips and lilies. Hours down the road, we came to a rail yard and had to stop; it reminded us both so much of our Dad’s work at ALCO. We gawked into abandoned passenger cars and a turntable with tracks in and out. Jim perched on the axle between huge wheels, rolling down a siding to bash into others stockpiled there with a clang so loud we both laughed like little kids.

Brattleboro was sleepy on Easter Sunday, Soundesign studio not yet open. We lunched in a Main Street coffee shop amid NRBQ, friends and fans. When Billy Shaw opened the studio, we loaded gear down the stairs into where NRBQ with guests Pete Toigo and Jim would record Adams’ arrangements of his favorite Monk tunes. The late T-Bone Wolk’s keyboards surrounded a Yamaha grand in one glassed room. This was T-Bone’s musical home when he lived in Brattleboro, and a special room housed his instruments. Whenever an artist needed a banjo (T-Bone had four), a guitar (too many to count) or bass (ditto), Billy would grab what the song needed from T-Bone’s stash. Photos everywhere made the place a shrine to T-Bone, and to NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino, who died in January.

But the mood was upbeat as players prepped their gear to record. I remembered what Jim told me on the road earlier that day. “A lot of people are having tough times now, but you sure wouldn’t know that from being in those crowds,” he said. “Any time you get to go into a place and make a whole lot of people really happy all at once, that’s a really great thing.”


“Terry Plays Monk And…” Thursday, 4/5/12 at FlynnSpace, Burlington
Terry Adams: Piano, keyboards and vocals
Conrad Choucroun: Drums and vocals
Pete Donnelly: Electric bass and vocals
Scott Ligon: Guitar and vocals
Jim Hoke: Pedal steel guitar, alto saxophone, harmonica and ocarina
Klem Klimek: Alto and tenor saxophone and vocals
Pete Toigo: Acoustic Bass
Adams didn’t announce the tunes and I don’t know Monk’s music well enough to guess accurately, but Toigo kindly rummaged through his charts after the show to help me put together this menu of songs, not necessarily in this order:
Children’s Song (That Old Man)
Gallop’s Gallop
In Walked Bud
Monk’s Mood
Ugly Beauty
Ruby My Dear
Monk tunes:
Little Rootie Tootie
San Francisco Holiday
Trinkle Trinkle
Ask Me Now
Other tunes:
I Don’t Know Why I Love You But I Do
A Love Affair
A Smile and a Ribbon in My Hair
Let Go
Stay With We
Yes, Yes, Yes
That’s Neat, That’s Nice

NRBQ Friday, 4/6/12 at Tupelo Music Inn, Londonderry
Terry Adams: Piano, keyboards and vocals
Conrad Choucroun: Drums and vocals
Pete Donnelly: Electric bass and vocals
Scott Ligon: Guitar and vocals
Jim Hoke: Pedal steel guitar, alto saxophone, harmonica and ocarina
Klem Klimek: Alto and tenor saxophone and vocals
Never Cop Out
Animal Life
Captain Lou Albano
When You Come Home
Ruby My Dear (Monk)
I Don’t Know Why I Love You Like I Do
Get a Grip
Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone
Get Down Grandpa
Honey Hush
Rain at the Drive-In
Walkin’ (?)
Keep This Love Goin’
Let Go
Here I Am
(Monk tune)
Dutchess County Jail
Little Rootie Tootie (Monk)
I Hate to See You With a Girl Like That
Little Floater
We Travel the Spaceways
The Definition of Love
When Things Was Cheap
The Music Goes Round and Round And It Comes Out Here
RC Cola and a Moon Pie
Feelin’ Good
I Want You Bad
Reelin’ & a Rockin’
Ridin’ in My Car
Me and the Boys
Sitting in the Park

NRBQ Saturday, 4/7/12 at Tupelo Music Inn, White River Junction
Boozoo and Leona
Keep this Love Goin’
Honey Hush
When You Come Home
Eronel (Monk)
Hornin’ In (Monk)
We’re Walkin’
Holly Jolly Christmas
Howard Johnson’s Got His Ho-Jo Workin’
All We Ever Talk About (?)
Crazy 8s
Things to You
Let Go
Don’t You Just Know It
Ain’t It Alright
Little Floater
There Should Be a Book
Captain Lou Albano
Get a Grip
(Monk tune?)
Buck Rogers
I’m Satisfied
We Travel the Spaceways
That’s Neat, That’s Nice
I Don’t Know What I’ve Got Until I Lose It (?)
Green Lights
12-Bar Blues
Get Rhythm

  1. Andrzej Pilarczyk says

    Wow Mike! Great road story and review!

  2. Scott C. says

    What is the secret to NRBQ? It’s magic, I tell you. Simply magic. What a fine piece of writing, Mike. How I wish I had been along for the ride!

  3. Johnny D says

    Great article!

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