Sacramento and the blues saved harp player Rick Estrin, whose new album “Contemporary” drops this week
Rick Estrin fondly remembers San Francisco’s country-blues scene in the 1960s. At the Club Long Island in Hunter’s Point, the night’s first performer was often a novelty act such as Iron Jaw Wilson, who balanced furniture on his teeth.
One night, a friend persuaded headliner Lowell Fulson, the famed blues guitarist, to allow Estrin, buzzed and 18 years old, to be the club’s next onstage oddity.
“Instead of picking up chairs and tables in my teeth, I was a white guy playing [the blues],” Estrin told SN&R. “First [the audience was] laughing and thinking it was gonna be a joke. … I guess I was good enough that people went out of their mind.”
The standout gig got Estrin an opening slot with blues singer Z.Z. Hill at the Club Long Island, and then steady work at the Playpen on Divisadero Street.
Fast-forward to 2019, and Estrin, the 69-year-old bandleader of Sacramento blues troupe The Nightcats, recently discovered that he had also conceived a son.
“My sister did a DNA deal, and that’s how my son found me through her,” he says. “I did a little investigating to see who this person is. Turns out, he lived in Florida, and he’s a COO of a company that’s located in Rocklin … like 18 miles from me.”
Estrin doesn’t remember the mother. “I was a fun-loving guy,” he says.
Estrin has spent most of his life zoned in on the craft. He dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, and picked up the harmonica and singing after his father died when he was only 15. He was lost, uncontrollable and in love with the old roots music created by artists such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Little Walter and the songs contained in his beatnik older sister’s vinyl collection. The San Francisco nightclubs, and later—the scenes in Chicago and Sacramento—were his blues academy and shelter from the streets.
“It was school to me,” Estrin says. “I was where I really wanted to be.”
After almost 30 years as the frontman for Little Charlie & the Nightcats, and 10 as the band’s leader and manager, Contemporary could be Estrin’s master’s thesis on his music.
The 12-song album, which releases on Friday, Sept. 20, puts Estrin’s lyrical style at the forefront: ironic yet plainly poetic. The LP’s title track was inspired by his nomination for Best Contemporary Artist this year at the Blues Music Awards, the genre’s Grammys.
He didn't win, but last year, the band nabbed three BMA awards for his previous album, Groovin’ in Greaseland: Traditional Male Artist, Band and Song of the Year.
“Just goes to show that you’re never too old to evolve,” Estrin says.
“Contemporary” pokes fun at the changes he observes in the music industry. The song opens with Estrin’s classic steel harp howls and natural vocals. But the chorus takes the band into the 21st century, with autotune, funky wah, rap verses and a consciously bad interpretative harmonica solo.
“I got just the key to guarantee triple-platinum success,” Estrin sings. “You got to find a cause to champion and get lots of special guests.”
Its music video, which has about 5,000 views on YouTube, is rampant with pop-culture cliches—farewell tours, breaking news reels and a Rolling Stone cover. By the end, Estrin wears a man bun.
“I’m not opposed to contemporary music, it’s just funny when you see people who try to chase trends,” Estrin says. “I’ve never had a plan, I’ve never had a strategy. If you look at what I’ve done in my life, I’ve just been absurdly lucky. … I just pursued what I loved, and worked on expressing my ideas and thoughts.”
Backed by tight instrumentation from an all-star band—guitarist Kid Andersen, keyboardist Lorenzo Farrell and drummer Derrick “D’Mar” Martin—Estrin spills his latest thoughts on the album. The song “I’m Running” tackles mortality, “Resentment File” the bad behavior of men remembered by their spouses, and “Root of All Evil” the conventional wisdom about money.
“That’s just a lie they try to sell you to pick your pocket,” Estrin says.
In the ’60s, Estrin knew poverty well. In Chicago, he remembers scoring drug and rent money by looting dilapidated mansions of their architectural fragments.
The Chicago blues scene, home to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, was his escape. Estrin believes he almost got hired into Muddy Waters' band, but thinks his reputation may have followed him.
“I floundered around being a general f--- up for about nine years … until I began to get it together,” Estrin says. “I knew I had to change. I wanted to survive.”
At 26, he moved to Sacramento and joined guitarist Charlie Baty to form a new band, The Nightcats.
“We had this common love for this music that was just completely unpopular at the time, but we were on a mission,” he says. “Sacramento was a sleepy river town. … Just coming from the fast environments, it was just what I needed, coming up here and slowing down a little bit. Just focusing on the music.”
Now, he’s living a dream. The band is tighter than ever, and he adores the red-eye flights to blues festivals and trips overseas. He has collected plenty of tales: hanging out with Mick Jagger at an annual island benefit for billionaires in the Caribbean, witnessing the modernization of Russia while sightseeing in Moscow and escaping a creepy hotel gig in Australia.
And there’s Contemporary, which Estrin says excites him even after the long-winded production process.
“I’m just enjoying this stuff more than ever,” he says, “and happy that I’m still able to do it.”