Rick Estrin & The Night Cats: Blues That Swings, But "Kicks A Little More Ass"
Singer, harmonica player, songwriter, and frontman -- Rick Estrin wears plenty of hats leading Rick Estrin & The Nightcats down the ever-bumpier blues road.
Estrin, who inherited the Nightcats when former band namesake Little Charlie Baty retired in 2008 after 30 years and nine albums, has breathed new life into the band. His first move was replacing Baty with guitarist Chris "Kid" Anderson, and giving the band a "more youthful sound," which includes the freedom to rock harder and funkier over the traditional blues and jump blues numbers that dominate the band's catalog. Add this to Estrin's soulful, at times gritty, vocals and traditional-to-wailing harp playing, and the results are highly favorable on the charged-up One Wrong Turn, the group's latest release.
Estrin's career as a bluesman began in the late-1960s and included stints with numerous artists before setting out for the then-blues capital, Chicago. There, Estrin almost landed a job with Muddy Waters, but ultimately returned to San Francisco and connected with Baty, forming Little Charlie & The Nightcats.
Estrin was on the road in Iowa "driving past dilapidated corn fields" when Up on the Sun dialed up the band leader. Happy for the diversion, Estrin discussed that missed connection with Waters, taking over the band from Baty, and how humor plays a large role in his songwriting.
Up on the Sun: You worked behind Little Charlie for more than 30 years. Was it a difficult transition to step in as a band leader?
Rick Estrin: Well, you know I always fronted the band. I wrote the songs and sang the songs; half the people always called me Charlie anyway. So that part of it was not so difficult. The transition into taking on mature, adult responsibility was the hard part. But I've managed to learn that.
The core rhythm section remains, but did you try to do anything to change the sound, to make it your own?
Well, I always felt like the sound was my own anyway. Charlie and I were really compatible for the most part, and the rhythm section is still the same, but they were trying to fit into the template we already had. They're versatile and were able to do that, but now we have a younger rhythmic feel. Everybody feels like more of a contributor to the vision of the sound. I think the sound has evolved; it rocks a little harder. We still swing, but it kicks a little more ass.
It seems bringing Chris "Kid" Anderson in really gave the band a different dynamic. Charlie was a great guitarist, but Kid seems to come at things from a totally different angle.
Surprisingly, they were both a master of the blues and the styles we always played, but Kid has a younger frame of reference. With the other guys in the band they can access more of a rock sensibility. People seem to really like that and respond to it.
Many of your songs have a funny side to them, like "I Met Her on a Blues Cruise," "My Next Ex-Wife" and "Legend of the Taco Cobbler." For many bluesmen, the genre is a more serious thing. Is this humor a natural side of you coming out?
Actually, there's a long history of humor in the blues. A lot of country blues was tongue-in-check, with the double entendre kind of stuff. Actually, on this CD I've got more serious stuff than usual [laughs]. I've always done serious stuff, but people seem to focus in on the humor. It's just my personality. I just see things from a skewed vantage point and I might as well utilize it. I write what I feel. Sometimes it's funny; sometimes it's angry. I just write what I think listeners might identify with.
I'd think these songs would create something of a party atmosphere in the club.
Oh yeah, we kick ass on the bandstand, too. We really do, especially this band. It's very, very entertaining and people really respond. I'm doing everything I can to stay out of that labor pool. We work hard and come to please.
So does thinking about the possibility of getting a real day job get you charged up to play?
Uh huh. This is what I've been doing for so long; this is what I do. I've got no skills and no education. If it wouldn't be for this ... I'm too old for labor, so this is it. Otherwise, I don't know... I'd have to steal shopping carts and look for cans.
I hear there's good money in that.
Hopefully, I'll never have to find out [laughs].