For more than 30 years, singer/harmonica player Rick Estrin — he of the sharp suits, high pompadour, thick black glasses and distinct pencil-thin moustache — was best known for fronting the swing blues group Little Charlie and the Nightcats, named for leader/guitarist Little Charlie Baty.
Since Baty left amicably for “semi-retirement” in 2008, the rechristened Rick Estrin and the Nightcats have put out two studio efforts, 2009’s Twisted and 2012’s One Wrong Turn , along with 2013’s You Asked For It…Live! All three feature the much younger Kid Andersen (guitar), Lorenzo Farrell (bass/organ) and J. Hansen (drums/vocals).
“But the age thing works out,” Estrin says. “Mainly because I’m so immature!”
So while the brief string of dates that will bring the band to Conroe's Dosey Doe Music Cafe on Thursday aren’t in support of a new record (more on that later), Estrin doesn’t see any big change in their high-energy stage shows.
“When you’re supporting a new record, it’s a little more exciting and you have higher-profile gigs,” the 66-year-old says. “But we’re a working band. Touring is our job. We do want to put out new product, but it takes me awhile to come up with new songs, and they have to be good.”
Estrin, who writes the lyrics and the melodies for the bulk of the band’s original material, says he always begins to write a song on guitar, though it’s not his main instrument.
“I’m a really primitive guitar player, and in some ways that works to my favor because I come up with figures that a real guitar player wouldn't, because I don’t know what I’m doing!” he laughs. “But the band are all schooled musicians, and they’re creative, and they contribute a lot.”
Many of Estrin’s songs going back for decades also include a healthy dose of humor and irony, and it’s easy to see him as a kind of befuddled character in his own tunes.
The live record has him getting turned down for credit at a suit store (“Clothes Line”), seeing his romantic future dissolved (“My Next Ex-Wife”), frolicking with plus-size ladies (“That’s Big”) and wishing he had more to him on “Smart Like Einstein,” which also find him pining to be “rich as Donald Trump.” Even the band’s cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Too Close Together” forces him to switch back and forth between two suspicious girlfriends who live next door to each other.
“I probably do have more humorous songs than most blues artists. For me, I think this is such a great job, I get paid for being myself,” Estrin says. “I’m just expressing the way I see things a lot of times, and a lot of that is irony and humor. And some of it is just goofy! That’s just how my mind works.”
One of his best “funny” songs is “(I Met Her) On the Blues Cruise,” in which Estrin finds that his shipbound foxy mama is something of an, um, loose cannon, bearing tattoos of the faces of previous musician conquests. Estrin mentions real-life players including Tab Benoit, Bobby Rush, Tommy Castro, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Taj Mahal by name. Watermelon Slim’s visage is 12 inches high and on the woman’s inner thigh.
So, did Estrin get any reaction from those players he likely ran into?
“It took three years before I ran into Watermelon Slim, but he was okay with it! And I saw Tab Benoit first,” Estrin says. The charmingly hilarious video – shot on a real blues cruise – features a lot of actual guests as objects of Estrin’s affections. And they are anything but normal music video models.
That song is not included on the You Asked for It…Live!, but it is surprising that the vast majority of the tunes are from the Little Charlie days and not the Nightcats' newer material. The reasoning is simple, as well as convenient for fans and financially beneficial for the band. (Yes, audience singalong favorite “Dump That Chump” makes an appearance.)
“I wanted it to be reflective of the show, and we draw from a lot of songs I’ve done over the years,” Estrin says. “I have so many people who ask me about the songs and where they can get them, and I would have to direct them to Alligator.com website, then tell them it’s under Little Charlie, and they are on different records…it was too complicated. Now I can say, ‘They’re all right here! $20! And I’ll sign it for you!’”
Estrin plays a Hohner harmonica – the first and only brand he’s used. And that’s because as a teenager learning the instrument, he wanted to sound like his idols Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson, who also used Hohners. And his loyalty had paid off in a way that even he couldn’t imagine — it’s his picture now featured on the insert in new units sold.
Estrin says he has stayed on friendly terms with Baty – who has since resurfaced playing with Anson Funderburgh and Mark Hummel in the Golden State/Lone Star Blues Revue (“We still play with him sometimes and talk on Facebook once in a while.”)
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As far as new material, the band has four tunes recorded and is in the process of doing more – though the bass duties were handled by storied ace session player Jerry Jemmott, who played on B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” and Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” There’s also the strong possibility of adding a new Nightcat on bass, as Farrell wants to switch to organ full-time.
“We’re kicking that idea around, but the money just splits up so much better four ways,” Estrin says.
When asked why he — as leader and longest-serving member — only gets 25 percent of the bounty, he laughs, but is quick to respond. “Well…I didn’t say what the four ways were!”
Rick Estrin and the Nightcats play 8:30 p.m. Thursday, July 7 at Dosey Doe Music Café, 463 FM 1488 in Conroe.