LIVE: Hudson SummerFest @ Henry Hudson Riverfront Park, 8/19/17
Review and photographs by Prof. Teddy Clements, Ret.
The dressing room was a cruise boat, the backdrop was the Hudson, complete with a squat stone lighthouse, and mountains rounded like blue knuckles softy bouncing cotton-candy clouds up so they didn’t fall into the river. Jugglers juggled; circus kids clad like Amish farmers formed pyramids, unicycled, tossed swords, tumbled and sang folktunes. Carnival food aromas spiced the warm bright air welcoming the music. Onstage, six bands brought the homespun and the happy, from amateur to professional grade and, in the revered quartet NRBQ, the cozy exhilaration of rock the way it’s supposed to be.
The ‘Q came to the inaugural Hudson SummerFest off a break after a California swing that went very well, indeed: “It hit people’s hearts just the way it’s supposed to,” said founder/pianist Terry Adams, walking down the gangway to the stage. In 16 days out west, their only days off were to drive or fly. “We haven’t done that since the ’80s,” Adams noted, recalling that a superb show at Troy’s Hangar, upstream some boat-miles on the Hudson, had spark-plugged that string of strong shows.
Saturday’s was another, with no road-rust in sight.
A living and lively shuffle through some boomer-vintage-and-since playlist of a slightly, happily skewed mind, NRBQ – Adams with Scott Ligon, guitar; Casey McDonough, bass; John Perrin, drums – did what they do. To borrow a (nostalgically poignant) song title, they were an imaginary radio tuned to resonate with collective memory, at frequencies only the hip can hear.
A cat named Dungaroos Kipawah posted his setlist on the NRBQ Appreciation Society Facebook page. He got some songs I didn’t, and vice versa; so I borrowed his, with my pedantic/professorial tweaks and notes in parentheses:
“Keep This Love Goin'”: A happy start, just right for the sunshine, good Scott vocal
“We’re Walkin'”: Engaging, with an inviting mid-tempo bounce
New tune: A Scott jealous/lovesong with a poignant lyric and tone of abject heartbreak, trying to salvage some dignity
“I Can’t Wait to Kiss You”: Casey vocal; cheerful reunion anticipation
“Cabana Bamboo Highlife”: A rumba with spirit. Dungaroos gives props to Paul Cebar for identifying this Randy Weston Latin bop gem.
“Yes Yes Yes”: Glorious. Scott vocal, best lovesong of the show.
“Don’t Worry Baby”: Casey vocal on an amazingly full four-piece arrangement distilled from the Beach Boys’ orchestral vibe. Terry intro’d this by noting Casey had played some Brian Wilson dates this spring on the Pet Sounds tour
“I Want You Bad”: Joyous, yearning rockabilly with a sparkling Scott guitar solo
“Here I Am”: Love is proud, in an extra-fine Scott vocal AND guitar solo.
“Captain Lou”: Terry called up old friend Richie to growl this one in place of the late, great Captain Lou Albano, wrestling icon and briefly NRBQ’s manager.
“Sittin’ in the Park”: Nice shift to ballad tempo, good Scott vocal on this Billy Stewart super-harmonized soul classic; yep, they nailed the vocal.
“Nature’s Gonna Pay You Back”: Terry sang this cautionary tale himself, then handed the next message song to Scott.
“Animal Life”: Scott sang and hit a scrambling guitar solo here, nice harmony by Casey
“Ruby My Dear”: Thelonious Monk, and nobody plays his tunes better than Terry these days. Hold on a minute while I grab this on iTunes, pour me a cold one and sink into its matchless mood. Wow! – and that “Wow” is partly because Terry next piloted the ‘Q – a craft more powerfully beautiful than anything sailing past on the river – straight into…
“Rockin’ in Rhythm”: !!! Duke Ellington at his most light-hearted, NRBQ at its most agile
“Wild Weekend”: A ’60s party song by the Rockin’ Rebels with get-down lyrics by NRBQ, it was a raucous romp on Saturday. Terry was feelin’ it and urged Scott to stretch his solo; irresistible vamp underneath.
“You Got It”: A deep-rockabilly solo from Scott lit up this crunchy number
“Not Tonite Hon”: Terry went falsetto/play-acting in this no-sex-for-you comedy.
“Howard Johnson’s Got His Hojo Workin’”: More comedy, but terrific momentum, too; Casey sang it and Scott pumped a slow-burn guitar solo
“Red’s Piano”: Jaunty and droll instrumental co-starring Scott’s low-register twangy guitar beside Terry’s percussive piano. Sounds kinda like the ‘Q’s own “Trouble at the Henhouse,” and Terry gave it this name because “Piano Red (Willie Lee Perryman, 1911-‘85) showed it to me.” The ‘Q have also borrowed Red’s “The Right String, Baby, but the Wrong Yo-Yo” for years.)
“Almond Grove”: Sad/love song by the Flat Five, the other band of Scott and Casey
“Wacky Tobacky”: A chunky rocker that, more than most, makes you feel young when you hear it
“Get Rhythm”: The Johnny Cash rockabilly bruiser, done here as the encore
The show had good glide all the way, so the extra-high spots never popped out very far: “I Can’t Wait to Kiss You,” “Yes, Yes, Yes,” “I Want You Bad,” the “Ruby My Dear” – “Rockin’ In Rhythm” rockin’-the-jazz thang and the rollicking “Howard Johnson.” After “Red’s Piano,” Adams said they’d play eight more songs, but two songs later admitted he’d lied. But the blitz through “Wacky Tobacky” and “Get Rhythm” ensured nobody felt short-changed.
The preliminaries felt preliminary. I arrived near the end of Black Mountain Symphony’s set, so I missed the Fabulous Versatones and the Matchstick Architects. Saturday was too nice to hurry anywhere, so I rambled slowly south down some blue highway with a “9” on it, past the east end of Rip’s bridge. Side-driving past the center of Hudson, I eased into Henry Hudson Riverfront Park past brick hulks of riverside commerce buildings and parked within sight of the stage.
Black Mountain Symphony’s folk-rock easily crossed the grassy void from the tented stage grafted onto the gazebo straight to fans’ ears. They had skill and swagger, strong but not too slick.
Too Blue felt less polished and put together; seemingly a friendly weekend-and-summer-festivals crew with dayjobs. They also brought promising, pretty Berkelee-bound fiddler Sofia Chiarandini, and they gained confidence and cohesion as they played, swinging blues and bluegrass.
The Zolla Boys, teenaged brothers playing guitar and mandolin with older guys plucking banjo and bass, claimed a narrower musical spectrum, but somewhat more convincingly. They reached back to Hazel Dickens, forward with the Gibson Brothers’ “When the Bloom Is off the Rose” – their best number – and sideways with Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.”
Meanwhile, a wedding brought a more formally dressed crowd than the t-shirted music fans at SummerFest to a nearby pier, boats came and went and the sun, seemingly oblivious to the winking spectacle it would present the next day, serenely arched across the ecliptic to go hide behind the Catskills.