House Rockers

FOR 26 YEARS, NRBQ'S performances have always had a "what's wrong with this picture" quality. The New Rhythm and Blues Quartet-known simply as "the Q" to its fans-specializes in hummable, danceable songs about falling in love and cruising with the top down. But they like to pull the rug out from under your expectations. They might slip in a Duke Ellington tune or a Chipmunks song. Or it might be one of their own numbers with nutty lyrics like "Howard Johnson's Got His Ho-Jo Workin'." Idiosyncratic pop at its best, NRBQ's music suggests what might happen if Huck Finn and Bugs Bunny strapped on Stratocasters. Not long ago at the Bottom Line in New York City, things hit the surreal maximum when the band charged into its anthemic tribute to "Girl Scout Cookies" from its new album, "Message From the Mess Age." Without missing a beat, the musicians began gleefully throwing those cookies into the audience. Literally and figuratively, the crowd ate it up.

Years ago some fan tagged the Q as "the world's best bar band," and the label stuck, much to the chagrin of this genre-hopping group. "When we play in a bar, we're a bar band," says Terry Adams, the piano player. "But we've played the Berlin jazz Festival, the New York Folk Festival and the Grand Ole Opry." But despite its stylistic fluency NRBQ does play lots of bars and clubs. In this respect, the Q resembles many performers of similar vintage, such as Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, Marshall Crenshaw, Lou Ann Barton, Dave Alvin and Webb Wilder. These are baby boomers still in love with rock and roll, crisscrossing the country to play for people who look a lot like them. Most of these bands have never enjoyed a best-selling record, but they thrive because they've grown up with their fans, and deep loyalties have been forged over the years. The bands educated the tastes of their audience; the fans demanded to hear their favorites in places where the sound is good and the atmosphere is intimate: bars, clubs and small halls.

"Most older music fans prefer seeing their acts in a smaller venue," says Gary Folgner, 52, who owns the Coach House nightclub in San Juan Capistrano, Calif "I don't care if John Lennon comes back to life, I wouldn't go to see him in an arena." But what price intimacy? Ankle deep in beer, your bead in the clouds of cigarette smoke? Ruth Liebmann thinks it's worth it. Liebmann, 38, a New York bookstore manager, had never seen NRBQ before the Bottom Line show, and she confessed that when all is said and done, her heart belongs to Southside Johnny. "What can I say? I'm from New Jersey" But bar bands in general have won her heart. "They're more audience friendly," she said. "They've found a way to be honest without being tough and cynical. So it's appealing to people over 30 who might be trying to bold on to their youthful values." Better vet, "the musicians all have beer bellies and receding hairlines, and I don't feel like I've got to wear my contacts."

Speaking from the other side of the footlights, 45-year-old roots-rocker Joe Grushecky has much the same sense of things. "Our audience is mostly thirtysomething, and they're all big music fans. It's not a pickup scene, or like young bands with a hip scene attached." Knowing that his audience cares as much as he does about the music keeps him going. "I always wondered if I'd get tired and start playing polka parties," he says. "But it hasn't happened."

By bar-band standards, Los Lobos is fabulously successful, having sold 5 million copies of its eight albums. But before hitting it big, Los Lobos spent a decade toiling in what Louis Perez, the band's drummer, calls "sweaty little clubs. The best shows we've ever done have been in little places when the thermometer is hitting that high register and the people are all crowded in. We played bars, weddings, tardeadas [afternoon socials]. Lots of kids. Lots of grandmas. Now people come up and say, 'My dad turned me on to you when I was a kid.' It makes you feel a little old, but it's nice."

Stylistically, bar bands share little common ground-except a willingness to try anything. Most of the players grew up in the '60s when American top-40 radio served a stew of sounds from the Brill Building, Memphis, Motown and Los Angeles. Now, you can pick a club any night of the week and hear a drummer's New Orleans backbeat, a Detroit-style bass line, street-corner doo-wop harmony and Nashville chicken-pickin' guitar-all in the same song. Brutal, tender, loud or soft, a good bar band delivers you into that ecstatic, sweaty territory of camp-meeting revivals and hoedowns.

But while such crazy-quilt musical dexterity is heaven for their fans, it works a hardship on the bands. Today's heavily formatted radio stations have no idea what to do with groups that play everything from "Good Lovin'" to Mendelssohn's wedding march. Which drives performers crazy. "I'm sick of the structuredness of everything," says Webb Wilder, 39, who wants to be "Roy Rogers and Ron Wood and Luther Perkins and Johnny Cash." Like most musicians on the bar-band circuit, he makes a living, not a killing. He tours constantly, and while his records don't go gold, they stay in print. Lately he's been promoting his first album, "It Came From Nashville," reissued to capitalize on its cult status-solid evidence of a devoted following.

A life of one-night stands is not for everyone. Ben Vaughn, who fronted the acclaimed Ben Vaughn Combo, still makes records and writes songs. But he refuses to tour with a full band. "I'm 35 and my hearing was going, and I decided I don't want to be doing this when I'm 40," he says. "I do miss live music. Live music! It's 1994 and it's still going on."

Fortunately for the fans, most musicians aren't as sensible as Vaughn. Bands like NRBQ live and breathe music onstage and off, and they're having too much fun to dream of quitting. In the Q's dressing room at the Bottom Line, a discussion of lyricist Johnny Mercer broke up when the whole band launched into a spontaneous rendition of "Bless Yore Beautiful Hide" from "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." "Doesn't that make you feel nuts?" keyboardist Adams exults. "That's what we think music should do."

NRBQ may be the best of the lot, but on any given night, some band in some bar is tapping that spirit of levitating euphoria that reminds you why you started loving music in the first place.