On the dreamy ballad "Imaginary Radio," Terry Adams of NRBQ conjures a station on which Sun Ra segues seamlessly into the Beatles: "Big labels, small labels, they don't care . . . they're so fair."
Stylistic diversity has been a hallmark of NRBQ's own music for half a century. The initials stand for New Rhythm and Blues Quartet (originally Quintet), but NRBQ is adept at not only R&B but also rock and roll and rockabilly, Beatles-esque pop, show tunes, country, and jazz, and they perform it all with an infectiously effervescent joy.
You can hear it all on High Noon - A 50-Year Retrospective, a new five-CD boxed set that collects old favorites, both live and studio, along with rarities and previously unreleased material. It's a sterling showcase for the various members' talents as tunesmiths and their ability to rewire outside material (check out the charge they put into Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm").
"It's a party for 50 years of music," Adams says over the phone from Brattleboro, Vt., adding that the remastering of the recordings makes it sound better than ever and helps to showcase the irrepressible spirit of the band. The band plays Ardmore Music Hall on Wednesday.
"People tell me they get the feel of the band" through the boxed set, Adams says. "A group of songs can be one thing, but when you actually get the spirit across, that's another."
The personnel has changed since Adams and Steve Ferguson got together in Louisville, Ky., in 1966 - Adams is the lone constant - but for the singer and keyboardist, that spirit has remained consistent.
"I've always had strong, good partners that think the way I do," says Adams, who last year released an album backed by NRBQ members that featured his takes on Thelonious Monk compositions.
For Adams, the guiding ethos of NRBQ developed right from those early days with Ferguson.
"I noticed that the recordings that the band makes at home, when no one else is around and there's no reason you'd ever think it would be released, the best stuff happens," he says. "How do you bring that kind of playing out to the public? That's something I think we did - be able to play for each other publicly. It brings the best music and brings the best energy and spirit to the people."
In other words, NRBQ has always been able to please itself without sounding self-indulgent, and in turn please the audience.
Adams says the band was never conscious of crossing stylistic boundaries.
"Did you ever buy Beatles 45s? You know what the other side of 'Yesterday' was? ['Act Naturally.'] One's a string quartet and the other is a Buck Owens tune. But it was the Beatles," he says. "There was a narrow-mindedness that came about, possibly because of music business pressures. When people are free, they don't think about [distinctions] like that."
You can hear that freedom throughout High Noon. Take Disc 4, for example, which covers 1977-90. Amiable goofs like Adams' "Wacky Tobacky" and "Captain Lou" (with pro wrestler Lou Albano - NRBQ pioneered the rock-and-wrestling connection) sit alongside perfect pop nuggets like bassist Joey Spampinato's "How Do I Make You Love Me," and no-holds-barred rockers like Adams' "Me and the Boys" and guitarist Big Al Anderson's "Crazy Like a Fox." (The group's only Top 100 hit, 1974's "Get That Gasoline Blues," is on Disc 3.)
It takes a lot of musical virtuosity to pull all that off, but the quartet makes it seem effortless. The freewheeling, anything-goes approach will be on display Wednesday night at the show in Ardmore, when NRBQ will be joined by members of the Sun Ra Arkestra.
As Adams says when asked about his affinity for Al Alberts Showcase, the old kids' talent show on Philadelphia TV (he used to have a Philly friend make him VHS tapes of the program): "When things get too professional, they lose their spontaneity.
"Some groups have everything planned out, and do it the same" all the time, he says. "We're happiest when something happens that we didn't know was going to happen."
NRBQ, with Jim Boggia 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Ardmore Music Hall, 23 Lancaster Ave., Ardmore.
Tickets: $22 advance, $27 day of show.
Information: 610-649-8389, ardmoremusic.com.