Rick Estrin's evolving blues DNA

Rick Estrin's evolving blues DNA
May 2, 2012
By Paul Freeman
Mercury News.com

Little Charlie and The Nightcats, for decades, stood among the most crowd-pleasing blues bands. When guitarist Charlie Baty decided to retire from the road, the group's future seemed in doubt. But lead singer/harmonica player Rick Estrin stepped up and helped The Nightcats deliver one of their best albums, 2009's "Twisted."

The Alligator Records release earned several Blues Music Awards nominations and was number two for the year on the Living Blues airplay chart. Though, as in past albums, it featured Estrin's clever songwriting, gruff vocals and wailing harp, it added rock and soul intensity.

"'Twisted' was a departure," Estrin says. "Little Charlie did a more swing type of stuff, a little more of an overtly retro kind of thing. With this, some of the grooves are a little more updated. And some are just basic, good-sounding blues grooves that are timeless."

At their upcoming local shows, Rick Estrin and The Nightcats will play songs from throughout their career, including selections from "Twisted," and a preview of the follow-up, "One Wrong Turn," due in July.

"We've gelled more and evolved more, in this incarnation of the band, so I think the new one will be a more fleshed-out realization of what 'Twisted' hinted at," Estrin says.

Estrin's songwriting has matured. "I might have a better handle on craft. I used to think that tackling bigger subjects was very difficult. Anytime I tried it, it was kind borderline
corny. But now I think I've managed it. We'll see. I think I've found a way to make it personal enough that it's not preachy or grandiose."

When he began writing, Estrin had all the great blues songs in his DNA. "I didn't have to go back and study, because I was a fan first. All that stuff I knew and loved was just a part of me. I had internalized a lot of different influences and when it was time for me to write, I could draw on that."

It was his older sister's blues records that first caught the young Estrin's ears. "She had a couple of Jimmy Reed records that really got me. She saw I was interested in that stuff and she gave me, for my 12th birthday, this record, 'The Genius Sings The Blues' by Ray Charles. And I just started getting into it, man. There was just something about that music that spoke to me a lot differently than the stuff that was out on the radio then, especially the white music. It just felt like Ray Charles understood how I felt, which was probably pretty delusional for a kid. But I found a lot of comfort in those records."

At 15, already singing the blues, Estrin picked up the harmonica. Haunting Market Street record stores, he emulated artists like Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter.

Moving to Chicago for a while, 19-year-old Estrin jammed with the greats. He received praise from Muddy Waters and Junior Wells. "It encouraged me. I put in a lot of hours, trying to learn that stuff. And I guess they could tell."

In addition to his harp playing, vocals and songwriting, Estrin is known for his terrific showmanship.

He credits Rodger Collins, who'd had a hit with "She's Looking Good."

"He taught me little principles of showmanship -- facial expression, inflection, timing, things like that. I picked up a lot from just seeing how he was able to activate a whole nightclub full of people and have them riveted from start to finish. They would leave the club satisfied and worn out and with a smile on their face."

In 1976, he was all smiles when Baty and he formed Little Charlie and The Nightcats. "I was just so happy to find somebody like Little Charlie. We both had this love for the '50s and early '60s blues, the real Chicago blues. And it was like the least popular music in the world, at that point. So it was so great to find somebody who wanted to play that stuff."

The band built a loyal following throughout the world. But Baty had tired of touring by 2008. In flux, Estrin made an instructional DVD, put out a harmonica blues album and toured South America with a band from that region.

Drummer J. Hansen and bassist Lorenzo Farrell told them they wanted to keep The Nightcats going. Estrin says, "Charlie is so unique that there's no replacing him. I knew it would be difficult to find somebody that had the knowledge of the styles that would fit with me. And also to generate that kind of excitement."

Then Norwegian guitar sensation Chris "Kid" Andersen called and happened to mention that he was no longer with Charlie Musselwhite's band. It was a perfect. "He's a natural," Estrin says. "It was serendipitous. It's turned out great."

So The Nightcats roll on, more than 30 years after they began. "I had other jobs, when I couldn't support myself playing music ... or at least I would have a girlfriend with a job," Estrin says, laughing. "But music was always the primary focus. I had no idea the band would last that long or make records or anything like that."

The Sacramento-based Estrin is now 62. Blues is one genre that appreciates age and the experience it brings. So he has no plans to ease into retirement, as his pal Baty did (to a degree, anyway; Baty still plays local shows). "I want to go out like Robert Lockwood or Pinetop or one of those guys, just do it till I can't do it anymore."

"We still put on a kick-ass show. If you're able to affect people's moods and give them some pleasure, it's a great thing to do. I'm not hurting anybody, not trying to sell somebody a bunch of crap they don't need ... aside from a CD," he adds with a chuckle. "I'm performing a service, because it gives people a little respite from their drudgery. People need a break. I don't want to use the word 'noble,' but we're doing a good thing. Plus, I'm staying out of the labor pool. I've got no skills and no education, so it's great, man!"
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