“With his sharkskin suits, pompadour haircut and pencil mustache, Rick Estrin seems a cross between a 1950s gangster and the world’s hippest used car salesman. His witty songs tell slice-of-life stories with memorable hooks and sly humor.”
— Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records
A very cool cat, Rick Estrin has anecdotes and an antidote.
The bandleader has been a star in the blues world for decades but followers of other kinds of music might be unable to identify his mug on a showbill. In fact, some people think his name is Charlie.
Rick Estrin & The Nightcats are co-headliners of the May 27-29 Big Blue Music & Brews Festival in South Lake Tahoe. The quartet plays at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 29, in Heavenly Village. Pop-rockers Pablo Cruise perform at 7 p.m. Saturday. The festival features more than 45 bands, which will play 17 venues all across town, including Lakeview Commons, a shoreline amphitheater located seven miles west of Stateline on Lake Tahoe Boulevard/U.S. Highway 50.
“I like a blues festival just to see my friends but I like a music festival because it’s an opportunity to make new fans with people that didn’t even know they like blues or people who have a misconception of what blues are about,” Estrin told Tahoe Onstage. “They don’t know its purpose is to make you feel good and to not to give you the blues. It’s the antidote for the blues.”
Big Blue Music & Brews Festival was put together on short notice, and Estrin, who lives in Sacramento fortuitously was available. He and his bandmates’ tour across the East Coast and Switzerland will start a day earlier than planned.
The live show hiatus due to the pandemic came at the same time Rick Estrin & The Nightcats were named Band of the Year for the second time in four years at the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards and the release of an acclaimed album, “Contemporary.”
“2020 was supposed to be the best year of our whole careers,” Estrin said. “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.”
Losing musical opportunities was minor compared to Estrin losing his musical partner of 32 years. Little Charlie Baty died in March 2020 at the age of 66. The band’s original leader — it was called Little Charlie & The Nightcats – left the group in 2008. Since 1987, Little Charlie & The Nightcats released nine albums. Rick Estrin & The Nightcats have made four studio albums and a live record.
Estrin, the flamboyant frontman who sang and played harmonica, often was mistaken for Baty, who played tasteful guitar licks and was reserved onstage.
It happened so often, Estrin said, “Charlie and I wouldn’t even bother to correct them anymore.”
Estrin was asked, when was the last time someone called him Charlie?
“Probably yesterday,” he said.
Estrin, a virtuoso on the harmonica (he doesn’t even need to use his hands to play one), was an ideal complement to Baty’s crisp guitar jump and swing blues style. Baty’s first instrument was harmonica.
“He learned all these guitar parts that go into playing that kind of music,” Estrin said. “Very few people knew that style of blues guitar. More people are playing lead guitar or more flashier stuff but there’s a certain type of accompaniment that goes with that style of harmonica playing that he had learned, all that stuff he needed to (teach) the guitar players in his band.”
A San Francisco native who was taught and influenced by Fillmore Slim, Estrin moved to Chicago, performing in the blues mecca for several years. Estrin eventually came back to California, where he struggled to find work. He didn’t even own a car. Baty was living in Sacramento and made Estrin an offer.
“I came up here on a Greyhound bus,” Estrin said. “He picked me up at the depot.”
More than three decades later, Baty tired of traveling and went into semi-retirement, playing mostly around California with Mark Hummel’s various projects, and occasional reunions with The Nightcats.
After Baty left, Estrin traveled to South America where he fronted various blues bands,
“They were young guys who learned the blues the way we did from older masters but also they learned from our records; so these guys knew my songs,” Estrin said. “It was pretty amazing and pretty great. I thought maybe I could be a low budget version of Chuck Berry.”
Estrin’s mind-set changed when opportunity rang: It was Kid Andersen.
“He called me on the phone about something else,” Estrin said. “I told him Charles had left the band and he told me he had just left Charlie Musselwhite’s band. It was totally serendipitous.”
“I didn’t want it to be a diminished version of Little Charlie & The Nightcats. I didn’t know who could fill that slot. Little Charlie was one of a kind. But Kid, I always knew he could do it. He would sit in with us and he was never intimidated at all, and I knew he could do it. It just worked out perfect. When it comes to musicians and particularly guitar players, I am the luckiest guy in the world.”
Christoffer “Kid” Andersen probably got his nickname for being a teenage phenomenon in Herre, Norway. Like the situation Estrin was in in South American doing the Chuck Berry thing, Andersen would be part of support bands for American solo blues players when they came to Norway. Saxophonist Terry Hanck recruited the 21-year-old “Kid” to move to the United States. After stints with Hanck and Musselwhite, Andersen has become one of the busiest producers of blues bands in the country. His Greaseland Studios is located in San Jose.
Bass and keyboardist Lorenzo Farrell was been in the band since 2003. He has a jazz background and a Berkeley degree in philosophy. He’s been in on countless sessions at Greaseland.
Drummer Derrick “D’Mar” Martin played in Little Richard’s band for 17 years. He conducts a music lecture series, “Drums & More.” Onstage, D’Mar is the Ja Morant of the blues, astonishing audiences with his leaping ability. He can do a standing broad jump over his drum kit.
“Everybody’s cool,” Estrin said. “We have fun together. We love going out on the road and traveling together. And that’s a real blessing. And also that feeling that we have for each other translates into the performance. It’s just a good deal. We can’t wait to get back out there.”
The tight foursome doesn’t rely on a set list.
“I’ve got a ton of songs from a whole career and we draw from everything,” Estrin said. “We don’t plan it out that carefully. There are some things we always do but the rest of it is whatever we feel like doing.”