Scott Ligon recounts his journey from Terry Adams fanboy to bandmate
Scott Ligon began playing music around the age of 10. By 12 he was gigging in bars, and even at that age, the multi-instrumentalist related more to bands and songs from bygone eras. As a teen growing up in the '80s, he wanted to play oldies.
Then, at 18, Ligon discovered NRBQ, and it altered the course of his life. “I just couldn't believe my ears. I couldn't believe there was a band that played like this and sounded like this and wrote songs like this that existed, currently, in 1988,” Ligon said recently by phone from his home in Chicago. “It changed everything for me. I had this strange experience where I felt like I was living the wrong life or something, like, ‘I'm supposed to be in this band.' And my friends would tell you that. I mean, they all thought I was nuts. But I just had this strange thing happen, which felt like, ‘Man, this is exactly the way I would like to express myself musically.'”
Even in 1988, NRBQ had been around for 20 years, and regardless of the decade, the band never sounded much like the music of its time. Mixing Brit-pop, rockabilly, jazz, R&B and more, NRBQ had also gone through several lineup changes, but there were two through lines: a sense of humor and pianist/founding member Terry Adams.
“The guys [in NRBQ] are really great musicians, but they don't take themselves too terribly seriously. They haven't forgotten that life's supposed to be fun,” Ligon said. “That's a big part of the musical experience with NRBQ — reminding people to have fun.”
Ligon saw NRBQ perform about 25 times between 1988 and 2004. Even though he had his own musical projects, including (eventually) Chicago favorite the Flat Five (featuring all-star musicians such as Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor), Ligon found himself constantly thinking about NRBQ. “They were a never-ending source of amazement for me, like, ‘How do they keep doing this?'” Ligon said.
In 2004, NRBQ went quiet for a bit due to Adams' battle with throat cancer, and Ligon decided he needed to get over his obsession. It wasn't healthy. As much as he wanted to be a part of NRBQ, it wasn't his life.
Ligon moved on, and a few years later he picked up a copy of the Chicago Reader and saw that Terry Adams and Steve Ferguson, NRBQ's original guitar player, were coming to town for a gig at Fitzgerald's. “I thought, ‘Man, I gotta be there for that.' And then I thought, ‘Well, maybe I should get the opening spot for the Flat Five,'” he said. “So we got the opening spot that night, and I had this feeling that I needed to thank Terry. I wanted to make sure that I had an opportunity that night to thank him for all of the music that he has contributed to my life.”
After both bands had played and just about everyone in the bar had gone home, Ligon sat down at an upright piano in a corner of Fitzgerald's and started playing. Adams heard the music and came over. “I said, ‘You should be the one playing this thing!' And so we just started playing some songs back and forth. It was really nice,” Ligon said. “As he was getting ready to leave, I said, ‘Hey, if you ever need a musical slave, give me a call.' And he said, ‘Well, I'm the piano player!' I said, ‘I play guitar.' He's like, ‘Oh, all right.' And that was it. He walked out.”
Five months later Ligon came home to a message on his answering machine: “Scott, it's Terry Adams, your leader. I'm calling you. Call me back.”
“I called him back,” Ligon said, “and Terry hired me as the guitar player based on two songs he heard me play on an old upright piano in the back corner of Fitzgerald's at 2 in the morning.”
A dozen years later, Ligon is still NRBQ's guitar player. He's played on several NRBQ albums (the most recent of which is 2014's Brass Tacks), and he sings about 70 percent of the songs these days. The four-piece, which currently features Adams, Ligon, bassist Casey McDonough and drummer John Perrin, now draws from 50 years' worth of albums. And when NRBQ hits the Rumba Cafe on Saturday, June 29, Ligon will be just as surprised as the concertgoers at the evening's set list.
“Every single time we go out there, I have no idea what song is coming. Terry calls the show. He's always trying to make sure that every night is as different as possible,” Ligon said. “We're used to it. We would feel like we were having an anxiety attack if we made a set list.”
Staying true to what drew Ligon to NRBQ as a teen, the band still plays music from all eras, and does it all with a childlike playfulness. “Music used to be the thing that you would do to get away from your problems — to escape. Music used to be more fun,” Ligon said. “The first time I ever made music with other people, it was the most fun I'd ever had in my life. And my whole life has just been about trying to do that again.”