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Anyone who thinks the blues ain't nothin' but a doggone heart disease needs a stiff dose of Little Charlie and the Nightcats. This Sacramento-based band substitutes comedy for sorrow and gets away with it.
"That's the way of dealing with life's troubles--laughing at them," says guitarist Charlie Baty in a recent phone interview. "We're out there having fun and trying to make people smile. We take our music seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously."
For all their joking, the Nightcats aren't the kind of group that uses humor to cover its musical shortcomings. Baty is an eloquent and intriguingly eccentric guitarist who supports vocalist-harpist Rick Estrin's punch lines with solid rhythms, razor-sharp riffs and distinctively whimsical leads.
"That's one thing that's nice about a four-piece," Baty says. "The guitar can take on the function of being a rhythm instrument, or it can take on the function of being a horn section, or it can complement the vocals."
Baty exposes his multiple guitar personalities on the Nightcats' 1989 album The Big Break. The six-stringer's ability and versatility belie his inexperience. In fact, he began his musical career as a harmonica player and only put down his Hohner after hearing Estrin's slow vibrato technique. In the nine or so years since, Baty has become an able picker who can cover the guitar gamut with ease.
"I try to listen to a lot of different kinds of music and practice as much as I can," he says. "I figure I've got a lot of catching up to do with all these other guitar players."
It's Baty's experience as a harpist that allows him to predict where Estrin is headed during impromptu solo extensions.
"If we're playing a song that doesn't have a definite form to it," Baty says, "I can sort of follow what he's doing, because I know how a harmonica player thinks."
This second sense is written all over The Big Break. In "Don't Do It," Baty shows he also knows how a vocalist thinks, with inventive fills that highlight Estrin's account of a doctor who prescribes a steady diet of boredom: "If you dig it, don't do it/If you like it then leave it alone/If it's too much fun it ought to clue you son, you're probably doing something that's wrong."
Besides playing hot harmonica, Estrin's specialty is spinning yarns. "He thinks of himself as a storyteller," Baty says. "He wants to sing songs and write songs that tell stories rather than just being lyrics."
Estrin expounds his talents as a troubadour on "Side Stuff," the tale of a man whose wife tells him she needs some other lovin', and "Hurry Up and Wait," a collection of short stories about rushing around to get stuck in line. The album's title track itself is a Nightcat remake of a tongue-in-cheek song by Richard Berry about busting out of the big house with a guy named Snake.
For listeners who've worn out the grooves in The Big Break, Baty promises a new live album around January. The Nightcats' hectic tour schedule is one of the reasons for the lengthy period between releases, Baty says. The band has played everywhere from the Gilroy Garlic Festival to the Folsom Prison Blues Festival to the Battle of the Blues Harmonica Players, and hasn't had much time to finish it up, he says.
"We get around," Baty says. "But that's only because we're still out there trying for our big break."
Little Charlie and the Nightcats will perform at Chuy's on Friday, October 26. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Spinning yarns is Estrin's specialty. "He thinks of himself as a storyteller. He wants to sing songs that tell stories rather than just being lyrics.