Can’t stop the blues
Rick Estrin is the lead singer, harmonica player and main songwriter of Rick Estrin and & the Nightcats. Estrin first made a name for himself as a member of Little Charlie & the Nightcats, a band he started with guitarist Charlie Baty in 1976. The band was based in Sacramento and spent 10 years playing locally before becoming a national act, thanks to a record deal with Alligator Records. They sent a demo to the label, not really expecting an answer.
“At that point, they were signing Chicago blues artists,” Estrin said, from his Sacramento home. “The only white people on the label were semi-rock stars, like Roy Buchanan. We were thrilled and shocked and totally stunned.”
The Alligator deal gained the band a national and international following. They’ve been on the road ever since. When Baty stopped touring with the band in 2008, Estrin enlisted Kid Andersen as the band’s lead guitarist and stayed on the road as Rick Estrin & the Nightcats.
“Charlie had been saying, ‘I think this’ll be my last year’ for at least 10 years. When he did quit, I started this version of the band with Kid Andersen, Lorenzo Farrell and Derrick Martin, who was Little Richard’s drummer for 17 years,” said Estrin.
“J. Hansen, who had been the band’s drummer for years, stayed on with this incarnation of the band for the first several post-Charlie years. We added Derrick, aka D’Mar, about four years ago. I think we were always an energetic band, but the addition of D’Mar has lifted the energy to another level. Even though my name is on the band, it’s really more of a cooperative deal,” he continued.
Since they rebranded, the Nightcats have released five more albums on Alligator, including their latest, Contemporary. The set breaks some new ground musically, adding funk, rap and various studio effects into the mix, with Estrin’s familiar tongue in cheek attitude.
“[The title track] was inspired by the recent Blues Music Awards [formerly the WC Handy Awards] we won. A few years back, I won Traditional Male Blues Artist of the Year. The following year, I was nominated for Contemporary Blues Artist of the Year. That made me think, ‘They must think I’m more contemporary now,’ so I wrote Contemporary,” Estrin explained.
Contemporary was released just before the COVID shutdown, so the band was unable to tour to support it. Instead, they produced a series of impressive live streaming events, including a performance on the Can’t Stop the Blues website that got over 20,000 hits. “Kid’s amazing and figured out how to do a live stream, and have it be in sync, with all of us in different places,” Estrin said. “He created interesting visuals to make entertaining online shows. I don’t think any of us suffered the way a lot of people did.”
The downtime also gave Estrin the time to write songs for the band’s upcoming album, tentatively titled The Hits Keep Comin. “I started writing the title track during the lockdown,” he said. “I had a creative burst a few months ago and knew it was time to go into the studio. We have a couple of songs we need to finish, then we’ll send it to Alligator. We hope to have it out in the fall.”
The new album shows off the band’s continuing effort to expand their sound, without forsaking the traditional blues that provide their foundation. “Our evolution has been organic,” Estrin noted. “It’s not contrived like the changes I talk about in Contemporary. There’s no marketing strategy. It’s just evolved because people evolve, and different band members come and go. If it feels natural, we’ll do it, and I’m gonna keep going until I can’t do it anymore or nobody shows up.”
Estrin said he grew up in San Francisco and fell in love with the blues before he was a teenager. “My older sister had Jimmy Reed albums,” he recalled. “When I started playing them, I dug the music. When I was 12, she gave me [the Ray Charles album] The Genius Sings the Blues. There was something about it—I was an odd kid, I guess—but the way he delivered the songs made me think, ‘This guy understands how I feel.’ It may have been silly, me being a kid, but I always had a side of me that wanted to feel really intense emotions. Once I got into the blues, I never went back to pop music.”
Rick Estrin & the Nightcats, with special guest Anson Funderbergh, plays next Wednesday, March 22, at 8pm, at Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland. Yoshis.com/events/calendar. 510-238-9200.