Say what you will about the demise of music on the radio, it’s still a pretty good way to stumble across something unexpected.
Cruising down the highway not long ago, flipping channels along the way, I encountered a tune, “I Remember You,” by The World Famous Headliners. I hadn’t ever heard of the band, but there was something familiar – Old School even – about them.
It turns out the Nashville-based outfit is fronted by Big Al Anderson, the killer guitar player and songwriter from NRBQ – a cult band whose most popular incarnation attracted a passionate following through the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. The group never really broke through to the big time, but it chugged along for decades based on its good-time vibe and monster musicianship.
At heart, NRBQ was a great bar band. It got your heart pumping and your feet moving with unpretentious, deceptively simple songs – and a huge repertoire including lots of tasty covers.
This got me wondering about other groups, especially from that era, that were, or at least could have been, great bar bands. The criteria include not taking themselves too seriously; a fondness for danceable, hooky songs; an ability to change directions on the fly; and a sense that the band members themselves might be found at said bar at the end of the evening.
In other words, I mean “bar band” as a high compliment.
With that in mind, please let me nominate two other groups as charter members of the Bar Band Hall of Fame.
Let’s start with Rockpile. The band recorded just one studio album under its own name, 1980’s Seconds of Pleasure, but it backed its two frontmen, bassist-songwriter Nick Lowe and archivist-guitarist Dave Edmunds, on several of their own solo records.
The band is a direct descendant of the UK’s “pub rock” movement of the ’70s, so calling them a bar band is not a stretch. And suffice to say that the members, at least at that time, knew their way around a pub.
But, more to the point, Rockpile rocked — in a rootsy-rockabilly-balls-to-the-wall way that anyone who saw them would never forget.
Back in the States, Los Lobos picked up the roots-y vibe and added Mexican flavor. They started the way most local bands do, when two music nerds, David Hidalgo and drummer Louie Pérez met at Garfield High in East L.A. According to an interview with the Chicago Tribune, the two bonded over eccentric artists like Fairport Convention, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder. Pérez recalls, “We’re looking at each other, ‘You like this stuff? I thought I was the only weird one.”
One thing led to another, and before long the band, which now included classmates Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano, were grabbing studio time at night – working around their day jobs – and playing any kind of gig they could get.
True to Bar Band form, they earned their biggest hit with a cover of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” but fans know that the band’s output is far deeper and wider than that. They are road warriors, too, touring constantly and earning a 2015 nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
No matter how complex their tunes get, you can usually hear the beating heart of the local band beneath the rock star veneer.
It’d be easy to add lots of others to the list, like the E Street Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival – whose breakup was basically a bar fight – who spawned countless bar band imitators of their own. And we didn’t even touch on country and its honky-tonks, or the African American chitlin’ circuit. In other words, this seems a great opportunity for you to connect with us and nominate your own favorite bar bands.
– Al Cattabiani has been playing in bar bands for a pretty long time
P.S. Click here to see the top ten bar bands according to our fans.
Photo Credit: Picture of Rockpile (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
The Leroi Brothers, The Tail Gators, the Nighthawks, Commander Cody, Roomful of Blues, the Fab T-Birds (Jimmie Vaughan era), I don’t normally think of Los Lobos or the Blasters as bar bands but I love ’em.
I saw all the bands you mentioned besides The Headliners in bars . . .
The Blasters! (Steve Berlin of Los Lobos was a member of both bands)
Graham Parker and the Rumour, Jason and the Scorchers, Drive by Truckers, Rev Horton Heat, Danny Gatton, Bill Kirchen …so many
Loved Graham Parker and the Rumor. Brinsley Schwartz was a big part that sound.
And Dave Edmunds and Nicky Lowe each guested with Brinsley Schwarz
Nick Lowe was NOT a guest on Brinsley Schwarz albums, Nick was a founding member of the Brinslies, as well as Kippington Lodge……know your historical facts…..
The Beat Farmers were the BEST bar band. Ever.
OH … YES !!!
The Beat Farmers!
Smithereens were without a doubt a great bar band
I saw Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot in a bar, but I don’t think they really qualify.
Jason and the Scorchers absolutely! The Smithereens have always been a junior Q type band to me. The first time I saw them, I thought they are following in the NRBQ tradition.
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes belong on this list
John Lincoln Wright and the Sour Mash Boys.
Great bar band I saw many times in the 70s in Cambridge, Ma.
Brinsley Schwartz and Ducks Delux
The Red Devils, house band at King, King, a blues house in Hollywood. Just one LP, a live set that garnered a Grammy.
Widespread Panic. Without a doubt.
Omar and the Howlers
The Hold Steady
Barrence Whitfield and the Savages
George Thorogood and the Destroyers; The Kinks; The Ramones; Fabulous Thunderbird, etc.
All great bands mentioned…I’ll throw in “The Raidiators”
Thats my choice! Saw them about 100 times New Orleans and all over south and NY. Two if the best guitar players to hook up in one band. Faces started as a bar band too!
The Q. hands down, although I wish they were remembered as something more than a bar band. I never missed Jason and the Scorchers if they were at a bar within driving distance
Yep, NRBQ, gets no better!!! Can’t wait for the 5cd box set coming in November!!
The Neighborhoods. Boston MA’s The Neighborhoods, that is. Everybody oughtta know!
Southern Culture on the Skids. End of discussion.
Jason and the Scorchers…..great call! Would Crazy Horse sans Neil Young qualify?
I went drinking with Rockpile!
Uncle Tupelo; The Replacements; The Black Crowes
Commander Cody and LPA…New Riders of the Purple Sage…Southside Johnny…Jerry Lee Lewis and the Memphis Beats…the Fugees…
Original Dr Feelgood with Wilko, Lee, Sparko and Big Figure. More recently, Dan Baird and Homemade Sin and Stacie Collins.
The Good Rats (Long Islsnd)
The Stompers (Boston)
Well, duh…The Band. They were in fact for a long time, Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band…in a bar. Plus The Amazing Rhythm Aces…actually saw Levon Helm and Russell Smith after both their bands broke up, with a band they put together, with Randall Bramlett, among others…
Reverend Raven and the Chain-smoking Alter Boys, Shortstuff.
Ace was a pretty good pub rock band.
Doug and the Slugs
Offshoot of the greatest bar band in Jersey, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes: “LaBamba and the Hubcaps” (comprised with members of Conan’s Basic Cable Band, such as trombonist LaBamba Rosenberg and trumpeter Mark Pender). Playing here Sam and Dave’s “I Take What I Want” at Joe’s Great American Bar & Grill in Burbank, CA
Here’s a vote for The Radiators, NOLa’s finest. Also, don’t know if anyone has mentioned the Amazing Rhythm Aces, but they definitely qualify.
Made Ya Look and Nightmoves!
The Good Rats and Twisted Sister. Saw them both many times in our local bars !
2 of my Boston area faves…. The Fools, and The Incredible Casuals – both combined really good, fun music with completely goofball lyrics.
The Good Rats and Blotto!
Lots of great bands listed here, most of which I love. A question: if a band gets really famous can it still really be considered a bar band? Just askin’. If the answer is no, and semi-big time is a reasonable criteria, I’d say The Smithereens.