Blues fit for dancing

Rick Estrin & The Nightcats provide the tempo for couples to keep their feet busy

THESE ’CATS CAN PLAY<br>Rick Estrin shows off his harmonica chops while Chris “Kid” Andersen plays a mean guitar in the background.

Rick Estrin shows off his harmonica chops while Chris “Kid” Andersen plays a mean guitar in the background.

Photo by matt siracusa

Review: Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, Sunday, June 7, at Sierra Nevada Big Room

Last year, after more than 30 years on the road, guitarist Little Charlie Baty decided to retire from touring and passed the leadership of his band—Little Charlie and the Nightcats—over to his sidekick, harmonicist/vocalist Rick Estrin, the man who early audiences thought was the leader.

The original Nightcats were led by Little Walter Jacobs (one of the best harp players ever), who left Muddy Waters’ band in 1952 after the success of his “Juke,” a harmonica tour de force. So it’s entirely fitting that the new Nightcats are led by Estrin, even though his superb playing and songwriting owe more to one of his main men, Sonny Boy Williamson II.

Estrin “stole” guitarist Chris “Kid” Andersen from Charlie Musselwhite and, with bassist Lorenzo Farrell and drummer J. Hansen—both in the band since 2005—has a new CD out on Alligator Records: Twisted. Like the Nightcats’ previous nine Alligator albums, it’s full of new songs by Estrin, a natty dresser whose wry way with lyrics helped fuel the band’s success.

Saturday night at the Big Room, the band came out blazing with a five-alarm version of “Handle With Care” (“It’s all right to nibble but baby, please don’t bite”) that featured Estrin blowing the backs off his chromatic harp and Andersen seriously heating up his fretboard. It’s always amazed me how musicians can go from zero to flat-out in a matter of seconds; the audience was similarly awed.

It wasn’t until the second number, a more relaxed “Big Time” from the new CD, that couples started to fill the dance floor, which soon became—and stayed—crowded for the rest of the band’s two-hour (!) performance.

Estrin chatted up the audience a lot; after another hot solo by Andersen, he remarked, “I knew when Little Charlie hung it up I’d have to get somebody tough,” and he introduced the guitarist and the band.

Estrin wisely chose to mix old Nightcats favorites in with the new material. Boogaloo’s “Clothesline,” about a guy shopping for threads (from the first LP, 1986’s All the Way Crazy) joined other “oldies” such as Estrin’s award-winning “My Next Ex-Wife,” which was preceded by a humorous dissertation on marriage vows and divorce (“you ain’t a man unless you’ve been divorced”) and then succeeded by “You Can’t Come Back,” another relationship song off the new CD.

Another rap described his puzzlement as a kid upon hearing the lyrics to a blues song about a “big fat mamma with her meat shakin’ on the bone” and, years later, being on tour in the South and seeing some big fat mammas and describing how to lure them by going to a Cinnabon stand, getting one and not eating it but “putting it on like cologne” and then hanging out in front of a Lane Bryant outlet.

Estrin was obviously digging his band as much as the audience was, and as his bassist moved from his acoustic instrument over to his keyboards, Estrin observed, “I knew his IQ was too high for him to be satisfied playing bass.” In between a few instrumental rave-ups, they slid in a few lovely slow blues (e.g., “I’ll Take You Back” and, from the new CD, “Take It Slow”) before wrapping it up with a pair of old favorites: “Dump That Chump” (with audience participation) and “Don’t Do It,” an uptempo number in which Andersen and Farrell played their instruments behind their heads—no mean feat for Farrell with his acoustic bass—and even Hansen playing his drums “backwards”.

Estrin returned for a solo encore, a marvelous version of Williamson’s “Too Close Together,” on which he emulated Sonny Boy’s no-hands harmonica playing.