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].You sing and play harmonica. Do you wish you could blow your harp more?
I always sang with Little Charlie; I fronted the band. But yeah, I wish Muddy Waters was alive and young and could give me a job. Then I'd be happy just to stand back there and play. But I have a good time doing what I do.
I read that Muddy Waters wanted you for his band, but you missed the call and didn't get the job. So what was up with that? I guess it was way before voice mail.
It was before they even had answering machines. It was about 1970. I was in Chicago and I went down to Theresa's [Lounge] to sit in. You can't imagine what that time was like--everyone played together. After awhile I got to sit in and (one of Waters' bandmates) told me I sounded good and that I should go to the Sutherland Hotel that weekend. He said I could sit in.
I went down there and hung around all night and finally got the balls up to go up to [Muddy]. He said to come back tomorrow. I was 20 years old and I didn't know if he was trying to see what kind of guy I was. So I came back the next night, sat in, played "Long Distance Call" and got off the bandstand. He was sitting at a table with some women and beckoned me across the club with his finger. He stood about halfway out of his chair and started shaking his finger at me and said, "You outta sight, boy! You play like a man, boy! You got that sound, boy! I know that sound when I hear it! You got my sound!"
So when I stopped levitating he asked me what I was planning. I told him I was thinking about going back to California. Well, he said don't leave town for about three weeks. I was staying with this girl who I really didn't like, but she had bought my plane ticket, so I was kind of restless. But I hung around and waited for his call. He gave me his number too, but I didn't have the balls to call him.
But I called this other guy who I had met. ... He was managing Carey Bell [Waters' current harmonica player], and was trying to set up a European tour for him. He was going to quit Muddy if he got the tour. ... I asked and [was told Bell] wasn't going to quit. So I went back to California.
A little while later Muddy came through San Francisco. I went to the show and I went into the dressing room. Calvin Jones the bass player said, "Hey man, what happened to you? You lamed out. You was supposed to be with us."
It was just one of those things, but everything worked out for the best. In hindsight, I was so young and wild back then, if I had Muddy Waters as a boss, as cool as I thought I was, I'd have probably gotten killed. It took me a long time to get any walking-around sense. I had some growing up to do. I could have got the job on the harp, but I think I would have killed somebody or gotten killed. I didn't have good sense.
And a few years later I started playing with Little Charlie and was able to keep my own act, my own songs, and all that going. Everything's worked out fine.
Well, here you are.
Yeah, and we're still doing it.
Rick Estrin and The Nightcats are scheduled to perform tonight at the Rhythm Room.