EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to poor air quality due to the smoke from nearby fires, Bluesdays on Tuesday, Aug. 24, with Rick Estrin & The Nightcats has been canceled.
The coolness of cats camouflages an underlying nervousness. We’re referring to bluesmen here, as well as felines.
Showman extraordinaire and harmonica virtuoso Rick Estrin felt trepidation about his return to the stage after a year and a half.
“I started panicking a couple of months before it was time to go back and I started practicing again,” he said in a phone call from Columbus, Ohio, a stop on the first 2021 tour of Rick Estrin & The Nightcats.
“It still feels brand new and weird,” Estrin told Tahoe Onstage. “It’s the longest break I’ve taken since I’ve picked up an instrument as a real kid.”
The pandemic prevented artists from working, shuttered venues and kept live music lovers at home.
“When things shut down, it was a bad time for us because we had just won a bunch of awards and we had the brand-new record out and we had some great bookings,” Estrin said. “It was really set. 2020 was supposed to be the best year of our whole careers. It obviously didn’t turn out that way. But compared to all the ramifications of the pandemic, us having our work schedule interrupted is pretty minor stuff.
“It was a drag and we’re disappointed but were glad to be back. And it’s still a moving target. Nobody knows what’s going to happen but were going to try to be careful and enjoy it while we can.”
Just before things opened back up, the close-knit quartet received their genre’s greatest honor. Rick Estrin & The Nightcats are the international Blues Foundation’s 2021 Blues Music Award’s Band of the Year, a reward for a beloved history of entertaining performances and the album “Contemporary,” which included a slew of oft-played blues radio songs.
On Tuesday, Aug. 24, Tahoe-area music fans have the extraordinary opportunity to see the nation’s acclaimed band for no cover charge when it appears at Bluesdays in The Village at Squaw Valley.
“It’s a great atmosphere and for something that’s free to the public,” Estrin said, “So you get a chance to surprise people because they’ve never heard of you or seen you and you also have your regular people out there. So, it’s great. It’s fun and I love doing it.”
The Nightcats’ proximity led to the fortuitous booking. The players dwell across the region. Keyboardist Lorenzo Farrell lives in Washington state, Estrin is based in Sacramento and drummer Derrick “D’Mar” Martin and guitar/multi-instrumentalist Kid Andersen hail from the South Bay Area.
During the lockdown, Andersen may have been the busiest musician in the industry. The head of Greaseland Studios produced several albums, including several for Alligator Records: “Contemporary,” Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite’s “100 Years of Blues,” Curtis Salgado’s “Damage Control,” and Chris Cain’s “Raisin’ Cain.”
“Whatever you’re looking for, even if you can’t articulate it, he knows,” Estrin said. “He has all these sounds in his head and he knows how to get them and he knows how to do it quick. I’ve never worked with anybody as talented as Kid in the studio.”
Andersen, who seemingly can play any instrument he picks up, is a quick study. He made three band videos during the lockdown, the first two when the members were in their respective homes.
“We’re all so used to playing with each other that we know even if we are playing by ourselves, each of us knows each other’s styles, so it worked out fine,” Estrin said.
A native of San Francisco, Estrin was 19 when he moved to Chicago to hone his craft. He was motivated encouragement and compliments from Muddy Waters and Robert Lockwood, a son of the blues’ greatest influencer, Robert Johnson.
Upon returning to Northern California, Estrin was mentored and encouraged by Fillmore Slim, Percy Mayfield and especially Rodger Collins.
“People were kind enough and willing enough to share their knowledge with me,” Estrin said. “Rodger Collins wrote ‘She’s Looking Good,’ which was a big hit in the Bay Area. Then Wilson Pickett made it a national hit. (Collins) was a thoughtful, smart guy. He has a philosophy on songwriting and certain principles that he drilled into me as a kid, and he would always encourage me. He said do not to settle for the easiest thing.”
Like catnip to a kitten, Estrin’s playful songs are suited to listeners who like blues. He’s such a prolific writer it seems tunes must come to him easily. But to the contrary, he said songwriting is an arduous process and that he feels unproductive – almost lazy — when he’s not putting them on paper.
“Sammy Cahn, the legendary Tin Pan Alley songwriter, they asked him, ‘What comes first, the words or the music?” And his answer was ‘The phone call.” So, when it becomes apparent that I need some songs, I have faith that I’ll come up with them. I always have.
“To put (phrases) together and make them sound natural and almost off-handed and flow like that — and make them conversational — that actually takes work.
“Once in a while, I’ll get one that just comes to me easily. Sometimes they pop in like a gift but when that happens it’s when I’ve spent a lot of time trying to solve problems on something else. It happens when I’ve endured a lot of frustration and finally figured something out and then I’ll relax and something else will come seemingly from out of nowhere. It’s kind of thrilling when that happens.”
Estrin also credits Collins for honing his showmanship.
“What I was able to see is what he did was unique to him. The main thing I learned from him was to be myself,” he said. “It’s like turning the volume up on your personality. I’m the same guy on and off the bandstand. If you are yourself, you can’t mess it up. It also resonates with people because I think people can see when someone’s genuine or not. They can sense it.”
Estrin also enjoys the role of mentor.
He’s known South Lake Tahoe’s singer-harmonica player Carolyn Dolan since she was an under-aged teenager sneaking in to blues clubs. Dolan is an inductee of the Sacramento Western Swing Hall of Fame.
Estrin has been around Sacramento’s Kyle Rowland since he was 10. Like Estrin, Rowland is a harp player with a most entertaining flair for showmanship.
“I’m really proud of him, man,” Estrin said. “He’s a natural. That’s a talented kid and a good guy, too. And fun. He’s my buddy.”
- Bluesdays at The Village at Squaw Valley
Aug. 17 – Terry Hanck
Aug. 24 – Rick Estrin & The Nightcats
Aug. 31 – Roy Rogers and the Delta Rhythm Kings