"Big Al" Anderson spent 22 years as the critically-revered guitarist with NRBQ, but whenever he's asked when the group's best days were, he modestly says, "before I joined the band."
That's because that was the era when the lead guitar chores were handled by the inimitable Steve Ferguson, a truly distinctive fretboard wildman from Kentucky, who manned the helm for NRBQ's 1969 debut album and the follow-up "Carl Perkins and NRBQ."
Sadly, Ferguson, who lives in Louisville, is not doing well these days. He's dealing with terminal cancer.
The 60-year-old guitarist noticed pain in his shoulder and in his back about a year ago.
"I went to the doctor and I had X-rays," Ferguson said. "He said there was an abnormality in my left lung. What had happened was I had a tumor in the lung. It had passed through the lymph nodes and gone to my bones. That's why I had the pain across my shoulders and in the middle of my back. I had bone cancer already. It's what they call small cell cancer. There's no cure for small cell. All they're doing is prolonging my life right now."
Ferguson wanted to play with many of his old mates one more time, and in conjunction with Anderson and Iron Horse owner Eric Suher, put together the framework for "A Wild Weekend," which will be held at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Thursday through Saturday. Tickets are $100 at the door and $75 in advance at www.iheg.com
The concerts will feature Anderson, along with original NRBQ members Frankie Gadler and Joey Spampinato, as well as the group's latter day guitarist, Joey's brother Johnny Spampinato, and other guests including session drummer supreme Shawn Pelton. Originally, Ferguson was expected to make an appearance and play with his former bandmates, but his doctors have told him that he is not healthy enough to make the trip. So the shows are now being billed as "A Tribute to Steve Ferguson."
"If I could I would come and play but I don't think it would be smart to try it right now," Ferguson said. "I'd probably end up stranded in a hospital up there and there's a risk of that. So I'm not going to try it."
It still sounds like it's going to be one heck of a party in his honor.
"We'll be doing a lot from the first two albums," said Anderson, speaking by phone from an airport in California. "I'm hoping to do some songs that we laid off of for awhile like 'Boys in the City' and 'Only You.' Gadler's coming so that takes care of a lot the material from 'Scraps' too."
The first time Anderson heard NRBQ with Ferguson was in 1971 at a show in Springfield.
"I heard him play the intro to 'Flat Foot Flewzy,' which was life-changing for me because all the other guitar players at the time were trying to distort and be like Hendrix. But Steve was the real deal, the only guy playing like that - real."
Describing his guitar style, Anderson said "He never slid across the fretboard, he always plays every note. Very rarely will he pull it, pull the strings up or go over the board. I think Lonnie Mack is his idol. I learned more from Steve than anybody on guitar. He is a real rock Â¤'n' roll guitar player and country too."
In the early 1970s, Anderson joined NRBQ after Ferguson's departure. However Ferguson did return in 1974 for about a year during which the two served briefly as a dream-team guitar duo in NRBQ.
"That was a very unique point in the band's history," said Ferguson. "Me and Al got pretty good at staying out of each other's way, we just had it down. I think that's the best musical period of the whole band through all of the years that they played."
Unfortunately NRBQ recorded very little during that time, but Anderson and Ferguson both point to an incredibly rare single that they recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis on SOH Records. Both sides of the 45 "Sourpuss" and "Rumors" were written by Ferguson, which are two of Anderson's favorites.
"Steve's a great songwriter," Anderson said. "He wrote things like 'Flat Foot Flewzy' and 'Ain't It All Right' and 'Fergie's Prayer.' He was real just like George Jones or Elvis. Some of those guys just can't help being real."
Ferguson, later recorded several superb albums with his own band, Steve Ferguson and the Midwest Creole Ensemble, notably the classic "Jack Salmon and Derby Sauce" in 1992. He also recorded with NRBQ keyboardist Terry Adams in recent years, including the 2006 album "Louisville Sluggers."
Despite his health, Ferguson has not ruled out recording again. He's playing a lot of mountain dulcimer in recent years and his wife recently got him a new guitar which has inspired him to consider recording some instrumental work.
As for the "Wild Weekend" shows, Ferguson asked to pass his best wishes on to longtime fans.
"Please tell them that I miss them and I regret that I can't do the thing that I set out to do but it would not be a good idea."Nevertheless, it does promise to be one very wild weekend for everyone who gets to celebrate the legacy of Steve Ferguson and his days with NRBQ.
Tickets for each night: Thu 6/25 Fri 6/26 Sat 6/27