In 2008, after 30 years, tens of thousands of miles logged and more than a dozen albums, guitarist Charlie Baty went into what he described as a ‘soft retirement’. The band that bore his name, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, continued on without missing a beat. Their longtime front man, harmonica ace, singer and songwriter Rick Estrin hired the Norwegian born, longtime Northern California resident Chris “Kid” Andersen to stand in the long shadow cast by Little Charlie. The band wasn’t re-named Big Kid and the Nocturnal Felines but appropriately enough Rick Estrin and the Nightcats.
Their 2008 debut featuring their familiar formula with a new name was a solid and well received outing entitled, Twisted. It is however the newly released album, One Wrong Turn that may be the masterpiece of this Sacramento based quartet’s long and illustrious career.
The Nightcats have had many terrific musicians who have passed through their ranks including, drummer June Core who had a twenty year stint with the band, as well as the great bassist Ronnie James Webber and others. It is the current lineup that may be the best, and certainly the most versatile, to play alongside Estrin. As on the album Twisted, Estrin and Andersen are joined by organist, pianist, acoustic and fender bass player Lorenzo Farrell. The band’s terrific drummer, J. Hanson even steps up to the mic and sings on one his own original compositions. The album was co-produced by Estrin and Andersen. Andersen recorded and mixed the album in his Northern California, Greaseland Studios.
It wouldn’t be a Nightcat’s album by any name if the record weren’t imbibed by original material written for the most part by Rick Estrin. His often sly, usually sardonic and always incisive wit is on full display again on this outing. On the songs D.O.G., Desperation Perspiration and Calling All Fools, Estrin aims that wit at three very different male archetypes and in the process lends some sage advice.
Then just when you think it is safe to go back in the water, Estrin outdoes himself and torpedoes the infamous Legendary Blues Cruise in four minutes and thirty two seconds of high seas hilarity. The song (I Met Her On The) Blues Cruise is a laugh out loud, long overdue comedic look at this well heeled blues sub culture of bad taste.
In another Estrin original Broke and Lonesome Estrin sings a straight up blues over Andersen’s volley of Magic Sam inspired guitar riffs.
The band is able to shift gears seamlessly from a Cajun waltz on Movin’ Slow to the funk infused title track. The instrumental tune Zonin’, written by multi–instrumentalist Lorenzo Farrell, is a swinging jazzy workout that features Farrell’s great organ chops and some great tenor playing by sax great Terry Hanck, who guests on this tune. The album’s other instrumental written by Andersen is entitled, The Legend of Taco Cobbler. He starts off the song by demonstrating his long standing affinity for surf guitar and then races right for something akin to the soundtrack of a film noir, spaghetti western. By the time the song is over it sounds like Quintin Tarantino having an acid flashback.
Throughout the album, fans of the blues harp also get to hear one of the true contemporary masters. From Estrin’s terrific chromatic playing on several tracks, to the song Old News where he channels Sonny Boy Williamson 2, he demonstrates why he is on the very short list of true harmonica greats. A horn section and background vocals are added into the mix on some tracks which give the album a wonderful aural dynamic without burying the music under an over produced avalanche of noise, which is so often the case in contemporary blues recordings. Andersen should be commended for his terrific engineering and mixing skills.
It should be noted that Estrin’s vocal style is probably an acquired taste. After thirty years I would hope most blues fans have acquired that taste. There is only one Rick Estrin and he sounds like no one else. That is probably a good thing, as if there were two people who sang like this it would be one too many. The man in the alligator shoes on Alligator Records is a true original and this time around he hit it out of the park. Rick Estrin and The Nightcats’ album, One Wrong Turn simply doesn’t make one wrong turn.
- David Mac