On the road again
Hardworking local band Little Charlie & the Nightcats stays in fightin’ shape to play the blues
It was double-take time. That cool-looking guy with the slicked-back hair, shades and mustache, in a stylish orange shirt, looked slightly incongruous walking into the gym on a recent weekday afternoon. What was one of the world’s best blues harmonica players doing hanging out at a place where business types exercise their stresses away to a soundtrack of smooth jazz?
Turns out that Rick Estrin shows up there two or three times a week whenever his band, Little Charlie & the Nightcats, is in town. “Anything I can do to hold off the ravages of time,” he said. As the Nightcats spend a lot of time on the road—they recently returned from the Midwest, and after a set of California dates, including Friday at the Palms in Winters and Saturday at Squaw Valley USA, they’ll be heading to the Eastern Seaboard—the 54-year-old Estrin has an exercise routine he takes on the road, too. “I used to run, but now my knees hurt too much,” he admitted.
So much for the stereotype of the hard-living bluesman. But Estrin and his fellow founding member, guitarist Charlie Baty, have witnessed a lot of folks burning the candle at both ends in more than a quarter-century of playing the blues circuit. “You see a lot of people, man, who are just so willing to be old,” Estrin said, mentioning the sudden, early death of Junior Wells as a wake-up call, along with the intoxicant-fueled declines of such once-great musicians as James Cotton. Then again, there’s Robert Lockwood Jr., a bluesman in his 80s who once told Estrin, “I’m gonna get me a new band, and B.B. King better watch out!”
So, youth is relative, and the keys to blues longevity are thinking young and taking decent care of your body and soul. The blues is, of course (and contrary to conventional wisdom), a genre of music that more often celebrates life than it wallows in life’s miseries. And few bands in the genre can top the Nightcats at the upbeat mix of American forms they play: hard-swinging jump blues, pre-bop jazz, leg-shaking Memphis rockabilly and swaggering Chicago blues. Baty brings a guitar style rooted in the styles of such early-20th-century masters as Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and George Van Eps. Estrin’s facility on the blues harp, on the other hand, makes him our own homegrown Little Walter. His stylish vocals are always entertaining, and his songwriting is witty in the way that Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s songs once were. Estrin accounts for most of the songwriting credits on the Nightcats’ albums.
And right now, he’s under a bit of pressure. The band’s last album, That’s Big!, came out in 2002, and it’s time for him to get a new portfolio of songs ready for the next record. His songwriting approach has changed over time; he used to write one song at a time, from start to finish. “More and more over the last three records, I’ve gotten a bunch of different ones going at once,” he said. “I don’t know what’s better.” He’s also been feeding his muse by listening to a lot of songwriters outside of conventional blues, like Willie Nelson.
Estrin and Baty have been playing together since 1976, and the Nightcats have released nine records—seven studio discs, one live album and one hits package—since they signed with Chicago-based Alligator Records in 1986, starting with All the Way Crazy in 1987. Throughout the years, the band has consisted of the two men, plus a changing cast of bassists and drummers. Estrin considers the current lineup—Lorenzo Farrell on bass and Jay Hansen on drums—the best yet. Politically, of course, that’s always the correct answer, but Estrin sounded like he meant it.
You can judge for yourself by checking out the Nightcats’ show at the Palms, before the band heads east and then overseas for shows as far-flung as Australia, Russia and Turkey. It will be their last show, and last trip to the gym, in these parts for a while.