His hair was perfect! Duke Robillard has loosened up a lot since his natty area debut with Roomful of Blues at J.B. Scott’s, and that’s not a bad thing.
He brings his band to the Van Dyck on Friday.
Roomful of Blues swung J.B. Scott’s that night in 1979, antique style. Their image was antique, too. When bands mostly played in jeans, T-shirts and long hair, Duke stood out for his suit and tie and carefully coiffed elegance as much as for the blue-flame runs he exploded from a fat jazz guitar. Like James Brown, Duke wouldn’t come meet us music writers until he’d fixed his hair and his tie.
No brotherly love
“DON’T ask him about the Blues Brothers!” Roomful’s manager warned us, and we only later discovered why. “Saturday Night Live” stars Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi fell so completely in love with Roomful at Roomful’s Bottom Line gigs that these comics and amateur musicians decided to organize the Blues Brothers on Roomful’s blueprint.
At first, though, they simply tried to borrow Roomful — but it didn’t go well. Roomful thought Aykroyd and Belushi would sit in for a few songs; they thought it was their gig and took over. When they sprayed beer into the crowd, the crowd sprayed back. Duke’s guitar and amp were sprayed, so he walked out, disgusted.
While the Blues Brothers became a big hit, Duke Robillard augmented his credibility by rejecting their clowning, insisting that playing the blues is serious business to those who want to play them well and serious fun for those in the audience who know what they’re hearing.
Those hearing Duke Robillard know they’re hearing one of the great players: Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Jay McShann, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, John Hammond, Jimmy Witherspoon, Dr. John, Maria Muldaur and many more knew they were hiring one.
When Duke played on the first two Roomful of Blues albums in 1978 and ’79 and countless live shows, he was the Rhode Island combo’s leader and best player. He then formed his smaller crew the Pleasure Kings, which showcased his solo skills better than the larger Roomful. When Duke replaced Jimmie Vaughan (Stevie Ray’s older brother: less flashy but just as good) in the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the T-Birds just kept rolling.
Duke has played on more than 50 solo albums and collaborations, and his versatile skills keep him in demand as guest star in all-star crews. For example, he played at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Chuck Berry tribute concert last October in Cleveland, along with Berry himself, Joe Bonamassa, Rick Derringer, Rosie Flores, Merle Haggard, Steve Jordan, Ronnie Hawkins, Chuck Prophet and Lemmy Kilmister.
Duke Robillard will lead his own band at the Van Dyck (237 Union St., Schenectady) on Friday, at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance, $22 on Friday. Phone 348-7999 or visit www.vandycklounge.com.
NRBQ in Bearsville
NRBQ played J.B. Scott’s around when Duke Robillard led Roomful there. Impresario Albert Grossman (manager of Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, etc.) fell in love with them there and signed them to his record label.
People are still falling in love with NRBQ, and NRBQ is still playing in Bearsville. On Sunday at 8 p.m., they play the Bearsville Theater (291 Tinker St., Woodstock), part of the late Albert Grossman’s empire.
NRBQ recorded its live album “We Travel the Spaceways” there April 2, 2011, then the next night hit WAMC, where they recorded “Crazy 8s” as the Terry Adams Rock & Roll Quartet on May 2, 2009 before Adams reclaimed the NRBQ name. Adams had to support this bold move with the exuberantly versatile musical fun, all-purpose/all-styles authenticity, off-center humor and wild unpredictability of earlier NRBQ lineups. He did, and they do. When they played their first-ever show on Nov. 2, 2007 at WAMC, I reported here, “OK, NRBQ was a great band and NRBQ pianist Terry Adams has now built another one.”
Since NRBQ toured Vermont and New Hampshire playing Thelonious Monk tunes last April — my favorite road trip of last year: I fly to JazzFest in New Orleans — bassist Pete Donnelly has left, too busy with the Figgs, other projects and his family to NRBQ any more.
That version of NRBQ released a swan-song recording a few months ago: a vinyl “single” with “Everybody Say Yeah” on one side and Monk’s “Hornin’ In” on the other. Nobody does that; but nobody else does lots of what NRBQ does. As radio host Bob Brainen has said, they make everybody feel young: What other band can do that?
The new bassist-singer is Casey McDonough (the Western Elstons, Kelly Hogan, the Handcuffs, the Possum Hollow Boys) while guitarist-singer Scott Ligon and drummer Conrad Choucroun remain from what Adams first called his Rock & Roll Quartet in 2007 then re-branded as NRBQ in 2011. Like the original NRBQ, the Adams-Ligon-Donnelly-Choucroun NRBQ could play anything, and play it well.
Admission to NRBQ at the Bearsville Theater on Sunday is $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Phone 845-679-4406 or visit www.bearsvilletheater.com.
Big Al and the brothers
Some might say there are two NRBQ’s: Adams’ hard-working crew, touring and recording constantly, and an annual reunion of former NRBQ guitarist Big Al Anderson and brothers Joey (bass) and Johnny (guitar) Spampinato, who played in the prior version of NRBQ with Adams and the late great drummer Tom Ardolino. (The Spampinatos tour and record with their own band, too.)
The reunited Anderson-and-Spampinatos group played Northampton’s Iron Horse at New Year’s. My friend Jim Green went and reported as follows, starting with his delighted surprise at opener Kami Lyle, the trumpet-playing, singing-songwriter who’s married to Joey Spampinato.
“Since this concert was a birthday present for my Big Al-loving wife, and since he was going to play two sets, I had no desire to sit through an unknown (to me) musician’s opening act. So imagine my surprise when, after several songs by Kami Lyle, I realized that I was in no hurry for her set to end. Clever and sophisticated lyrics coupled with original jazz-tinged music played joyfully by a Berklee-educated musician turned this self-admitted music snob into a true believer.
“As to Big Al, his two sets were just as expected. Excellent. The opening acoustic set, performed with his (own, new Nashville-based) band, was made up predominantly of new or at least post-NRBQ songs written either for himself or for other artists. His between-song banter felt like he was chatting with old friends about the songs or the artists who recorded them.
“The electric ’Q set was just what you would expect from musicians who have played together on and off for years and still love the opportunity to revisit their musical past one more time.” Thanks, Jim.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at email@example.com.