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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

For harmonica hero Rick Estrin, the blues 'ain't going nowhere'

Rick Estrin & the Nightcats' "The Blues Ain't Going Nowhere"

He’s unquestionably one of the best players and most entertaining performers in any genre, but in appraising new album Groovin’ in Greaseland by Rick Estrin & the Nightcats, blues harmonica great Rick Estrin focuses first on what he’s saying in his songwriting.

“People think I’m funny—and I guess I am—but I like being able to write a little more serious kind of songs,” says the Bay Area-based Estrin, whose 2012 album with The Nightcats, One Wrong Turn, yielded one of the funniest-ever blues songs and videos in “(I Met Her on the) Blues Cruise.”

“The new songs are still me, but I’m able to say some things in a way that I sincerely feel. Like [lead track] ‘The Blues Ain’t Going Nowhere’: I thought maybe I’d write a song about how the world is so f’d up that the blues are in good shape. I mean, I look around and I’m glad I’m old!”

Of course, there’s still plenty of Estrin’s laugh-out-loud signature self-deprecation. “Dissed Again,” which finds our hero lamenting such indignities as being relegated to opening for “a 10-year-old [who] sounds just like Stevie Ray,” and not only catching a woman--whom he thought “would understand my pain”--with another guy, and then finding out “she didn’t care enough to lie.”

“It’s just the truth!” explains Estrin. “Everyhwere you go you get, ‘Oh, my God! Have you heard Good Rockin’ Josh? He’s four-years-old with the soul of a 90-year-old black man!’ and you, go, ‘God damn!’ Why do I have to be required to be phony to people because it’s against the law to just punch ‘em in the face?”

Joking aside, Groovin’ in Greaseland ends with “So Long (for Jay P.),” a groovy blues instrumental written in memory of Jay Peterson, bassist on the first three albums from Little Charley & the Nightcats—which Estrin fronted with guitarist Charlie Baty, then took over and renamed when Baty retired in 2008.

“He was my buddy and I loved the guy,” says Estrin of Peterson. “He had a great personality and said stuff that was off-the-cuff that to this day is part of the normal vocabulary of anybody in the band.”

Besides the hip harmonicat, Rick Estrin & the Nightcats currently consists of guitarist Chris “Kid” Andersen, who co-produced Groovin’ in Greaseland with Estrin at Andersen’s Greaseland Studio in San Jose and is also credited with recording and mixing; bassist-turned-keyboardist Lorenzo Farrell and drummer Alex Pettersen.

“Alex is new and has a completely different style--less tight but more relaxed and more soulful,” says Estrin. “He has more of a blues background and a warmer, bigger drum sound that you feel physically.”

As ever, all band members’ names are featured on the album cover, which resembles an abstract painting.

“Modern art, I guess,” states Estrin. “I just wanted it to look like a ‘60s Prestige or Blue Note [jazz label] album. I’m just sick of posing for pictures! And it’s a band--not just me and some accompanists, but a real band. Kid’s been with me going on 10 years already and Lorenzo’s with me 15 years and is such a great organ player now: He got sick of playing the bass and now plays bass [on the organ] with his left hand.”

But legendary bass guitarist Jerry Jemmott helps out on three tracks.

“That’s something really cool!” says Estrin. “Kid knew him because he did a record in his studio and got to be friends with him. We just played in L.A. and he came out both nights and sat in, which was just huge. To me I’m still a fan, and that’s the stuff I cherish the most: To have a guy like that actually contribute to our stuff is a huge thrill, and one of the coolest things about the record, for sure.”

Estrin further credits Andersen for his engineering skill and creating an optimal atmosphere in the studio.

“You’d think as long as I’ve been doing this that I’d be totally at home, but I keep getting more relaxed in the studio—and a big part of that is Kid and his studio. But I’m just happy that I’m still able to think of stuff: I always feel like I’ll never be able to squeeze out another song. I’ve already said everything, and even though history has shown me that if I sit down and try I’ll give myself a mental hernia--but it’s cool.”

And the longer he stays at it, Estrin continues, “the more I appreciate it. I see the audience getting older, and live music in general is less popular and it’s harder to put things together the way I used to. But I appreciate it more now, and as long as I’m able to do it, I want to keep doing it--and in order to keep going, you’ve got to keep feeding the meter and putting something out there.”

Meanwhile, Estrin and The Nightcats are staying busy in Europe.

“Before the year is up we’ll have gone there five times this year,” he says, also mentioning the band’s recent opening slot for Conan bandleader Jimmy Vivino, and Tom Petty’s play of “Don’t Do It” (from 2014 album You Asked For It...Live!) on his Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure SiriusXM radio show.

“I know we appeal to more than blues fans when they see and hear us,” concludes Estrin.

"Don't Do It"



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