Spontaneity will take center stage when the Belleville Roots Music Concert Series presents NRBQ on Saturday night.
Nearing its 50-year anniversary, NRBQ brings an eclectic, unpredictable beat with original songs from rock ’n’ roll to country, blues and rockabilly, led by renowned musician Terry Adams and joined by the brassy sounds of the Whole Wheat Horns.
NRBQ, aka the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, has a history spanning into the heyday of several of the genres that it has helped sustain. Born in the late 1960s in a Louisville, Kentucky, garage, the quartet swapped in a flurry of different lineups before finally settling on a quintet that would become the first NRBQ.
The group signed on with Columbia for a pair of debut albums, including “Boppin’ the Blues” with rockabilly legend Carl Perkins, then struck out on its own, adding an independent label and a pop-inspired flavor.
With the addition of the Whole Wheat Horns — the duo of saxophonist Klem Klimek and trombonist Carl Q — in the 1970s, the band quickly grew in popularity, earning such a wide fan base that it became the unofficial “house band” of the animated comedy “The Simpsons” and even appeared in a season 11 episode. And as recently as 2009, NASA proved its fandom by sending a copy of NRBQ’s “Grooves in Orbit” album into space.
In its albums, NRBQ is defined more by swinging rhythms and upbeat vocals than by a particular sound — the musicians feel just as free with a bluesy harmonica as with a more traditional rock mix of guitars, drums and vocals. But onstage, the band is a whirlwind of energy and improvisation.
That extends to the set list itself: There is none. Instead, lead singer Adams launches from the end of one song straight into the opening chords of whichever song suits his mood, leaving his bandmates to recognize the tune and pick up the rhythm.
Even individual songs are tweaked on the fly, taking on a new tempo or mood to match Adams’ energy.
The Daily News spoke with guitarist Scott Ligon between stops on a grueling East Coast tour.
“We’re drawing on a catalog of upwards of 200 songs, probably more,” Ligon said. “It’s basically Terry’s entire life’s work. We have to be prepared to play any song Terry’s ever written.”
Ken Irwin, co-founder of Rounder Records and a member of the Belleville Roots Music Committee, has worked with Adams on several albums, where he saw that in-the-moment attitude firsthand.
“He said that if they get recorded the following day, they might have done different songs, or they might have done them differently,” Irwin said. “They just captured what they’re feeling in the moment, and that can be totally different from what they’re feeling the next day.”
Adams is a force of nature, a “clown prince,” as Irwin puts it, or a “professional optimist,” in Ligon’s words.
“Terry’s maybe the most positive person that I know,” Ligon said. “He feels love really strongly, and I think he’s somebody that feels a lot of responsibility in terms of spreading good vibes and trying to make people feel loved through music.”
It was Adams’ irrepressible positive energy that Ligon noticed as an 18-year-old in the late 1980s, when he first saw NRBQ in concert.
“I had some sort of almost mystical connection to Terry when I first saw them,” he said. “I just felt like I knew this guy, or I was supposed to know him. He almost seemed like family to me.”
That first concert inspired Ligon to change his approach to music, shedding genre definitions and simply playing whatever songs he liked.
Nearly 20 years later, NRBQ had split up and Adams, recovering from a nasty battle with throat cancer, met Ligon and entertained thoughts of an NRBQ rebirth. Ligon sees the years between his introduction to the band and his induction into it as a sort of “apprenticeship,” as he learned to follow the freewheeling style.
“It wasn’t that they were playing different styles, it was the way they were playing it, the enthusiasm, the energy and fun, the musicianship,” Ligon said. “These guys play so well and are such serious musicians, but they’re having so much fun.
“It just made a lot of sense to me very early on. I just thought it was something that I needed to be a part of.”
The Belleville Roots Music Concert Series is looking forward to bringing that style into its musical community with a performance that’s sure to be unique from the solos to the set list, Irwin said.
“It is one of the most enjoyable concerts that you’ll ever hear,” he said. “You see people coming out of an NRBQ concert smiling.”
The 2014/2015 concert series will wrap up with Della Mae on Friday, June 5.
If you go
What: NRBQ and the Whole Wheat Horns
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: Belleville Congregational Church, 300 High St., Newburyport
How much: $30 in advance, $35 day of show; $10 for ages 18 and under. Tickets available at church office today and tomorrow from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Belleville Thrift Shop on Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon; Dyno Records, 1 Middle St., Newburyport; www.mktix.com/bc; and at the door.