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Sorry, Charlie

With their claws in everything from hard Chicago blues to rockabilly to bebop to even C&W swing, Little Charlie and the Nightcats are nothing if not one of the most versatile bands performing and recording under the all-encompassing genre "the blues." So it's surprising to find it's only with this quartet's latest release, Shadow of the Blues (Alligator), that the band fully explores its Chicago influences. The disc emits a laid-back, greasy roadhouse feel on the original tracks "Never Trust a Woman," "I Don't Drink Much" and "New Old Lady" and on such covers as "You Don't Love Me That Way."

Guitarist Little Charlie Baty first formed the band with singer/harpist Rick Estrin in 1976 in the San Francisco Bay Area. After a decade of gigging on the West Coast, they sent Alligator Records an unsolicited demo, which impressed president Bruce Iglauer enough to offer them a contract on the spot. Three consecutive critically acclaimed records followed each year thereafter: All the Way Crazy, Disturbing the Peace and The Big Break!. Driven by Baty's tasteful ax-wielding and the pompadoured, mustachioed and sunglassed Estrin and his often wry, satirical lyrics, the band soon became a flagship act for the label and has released additional works through the years, two studio records, one live work and one compilation. Now with Ronnie James Weber (bass) and June Core (drums) completing the lineup, the band continues to deliver solid blues that exudes a classy craftsmanship and is rarely flashy or full of wrenching passion. Estrin's restrained, low-key vocals flow smoothly, and his harmonica doesn't intrude on the material as much as it accents it. Little Charlie and the Nightcats are still on the prowl and must have plenty of lives left in them.

-- Bob Ruggiero

Little Charlie and the Nightcats perform Friday, March 5, at 8:30 p.m. at Billy Blues, 6025 Richmond. Tickets are $10. For info call (713)266-9294.

Tito Puente -- More than a few acts over the years have regretted following Tito Puente. Known as the "King of Mambo" or simply "El Rey," Puente leads danceable Latin-jazz sets that get the crowd on the dance floor and leave the audience exhausted. Yet as danceable as Puente's music may be, its musical relevance can't be discounted. His innovative arrangements fuse the Cuban charanga with a splashy big-band context. Often using jazz soloists not associated with Latin music, Puente's style of Latin-jazz is not only popular, but equally well respected in Latin and jazz circles. It's his versatility, however, that makes his music cross over so well. A great showman, Puente can swing with the best and do a mean cha-cha-cha. One need look no further than Puente's signature song, "Oye Como Va!" for proof. It will make you want to dance, two left feet and all. If it doesn't, better check your pulse while the rest of us boogie to some salsa all night long. Tito Puente performs at the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place on Saturday, March 6. Call Ticketmaster at (713)629-3700. (Paul J. MacArthur

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