On their last studio outing, Straight Up!, Little Charlie and the Nightcats showed just how versatile a versatile band can be. The 1995 release augmented an already wide-open sound by lending a distinctive jazz edge to the jacked-up fusion of jump, swing and gritty R&B that had defined the group's earlier CDs and established the Nightcats as one of today's most diverse blues-based acts.
But don't get the idea that Straight Up! fully dictated the future for Little Charlie and the Nightcats. In fact, as the quartet starts work this fall on a seventh CD, guitarist Little Charlie Baty says the band will train its focus almost entirely on traditional Chicago blues.
"I think part of that is, when you've made six records already, you want to start trying some different concepts," Baty says. "I thought that one thing we could do was to try to have more of a serious Chicago blues record. It's just to show that we are a blues band. I mean, there have been enough reviews and comments [that] call us a novelty band, which I don't think is right. So I guess it's partially to address that."
The novelty image has come about largely because of the hipster persona of the band's singer/harp player Rick Estrin, not to mention the humorous lyrics in some of Estrin's songs and the cartoonish visual image the band created with the cover art of late-'80s efforts such as All the Way Crazy, Disturbing the Peace and The Big Break. Baty hopes that a bluesier disc will enhance the band's reputation as a crack musical unit with chops to spare. It could also illuminate the musical roots of the band, which also includes bassist Ronnie James Weber and drummer June Core. Formed by Baty and Estrin in the early 1970s in San Francisco -- and relocated to Sacramento a short time later -- Little Charlie and the Nightcats had a set plan in mind when they first began.
"I think, musically, it started out a lot more focused," Baty says. "That's maybe one reason why we want to do the Chicago blues record -- because [in the beginning] that's pretty much all we did."
But over time, says Baty, the group added a pronounced dash of rhythm and blues flavoring, mostly by necessity. "We did some doo-wop kind of tunes. We used to do 'Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash' and 'Right Around the Corner,' which is on the first record. And we started picking up all these different influences," he says. "We were a band that was playing four sets a night. We had to vary the beats. We couldn't just play shuffles, because blues is almost like a dirty word. So in order to get work, you had to be more than a blues band. You wanted people to dance and have a good time. And as all this was developing, Rick was also developing his stage personality."
Still, Baty admits, the idea of doing a pure blues release hasn't been without its obstacles, especially for singer/songwriter Estrin.
"That's one of the reasons why the record has taken longer, because [Estrin's] not used to writing songs in just one channel," Baty says. "A lot of his songs almost have a country kind of flavor to them, and they can cross over different lines -- and to focus it in a Chicago blues kind of way has been more of a challenge for him."
Aside from their work in the studio, there's plenty of other news surrounding the band. This month, their label, Alligator, will release Deluxe Edition, a 15-song best-of compilation covering music from Little Charlie's first six CDs. Recently, Little Charlie and the Nightcats also backed bluesman John Hammond on sessions for his new CD, which marks the third time the group has performed on a Hammond disc.
"The thing with the John Hammond record was, he was going to use us on some electric cuts like he did twice before," Baty says of the CD, which is slated for release early next year. "But it sounded so good -- the band in the studio and what we were doing with him -- that he decided to make the whole record electric. So we're on every track."
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Still, if you're assuming that the group's return to its blues roots is a permanent journey back, think again. Baty continues to delve further into jazz as a guitarist, and he cites the music of two Charlies -- Christian and Parker -- as his prime catalysts. "Sometimes, when the band is not playing and we have some time off, I'll get together with some people and do jazz trio work," he says. "I've been trying to develop the lines in my playing."
Baty plans to explore the genre even further in the future. And don't be surprised if the rest of the band doesn't go along for the ride.
"I think sometime in the next year or so I'm going to be doing a solo record on Alligator where I do a lot of that swing and bebop stuff," Baty says. "We do [that] as part of the show anyway. We sort of sidelight that sort of stuff. But everybody's playing is always evolving, and that's what makes this whole thing fun."
Little Charlie and the Nightcats perform at 9 p.m. Friday, October 31, at Billy Blues Bar & Grill, 6025 Richmond. Tickets are $8. For info, call 266-9294.