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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Rick Estrin takes award-winning Nightcats blues band 'contemporary'

Rick Estrin & the Nightcats' "Contemporary"

Award-winning Bay Area blues band Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, whose uproarious video for “(I Met Her On The) Blues Cruise” from their 2012 album One Wrong Turn was arguably too much fun for the blues, are at it again.

The video for “Contemporary,” the titletrack of the band’s fifth album for Alligator Records (releasing Friday), offers another standout clip for any music genre.

Opening with a black-and-white spoof of silent movies, the video, directed by ace Nightcats guitarist Kid Andersen, shows a disgruntled Estrin reading a mock Rolling Stone cover blaring “The Blues is Dead!” and realizing his career is dead with it--unless he can quickly come up with a survival plan. Phoning “the fellas,” he expresses the urgent need to “get contemporary,” otherwise they’ll have to get, heaven forbid, “JOBS!!!!”

They then begin performing “Contemporary,” which explains that to avoid “heading for oblivion” via their out-of-fashion music style, they need to funk and rock it up—which is exactly what they do as the video turns to color. Estrin has a field day imparting self-empowering bromides like having to “think outside the box,” “reinvent yourself, expand your demographic base [and] grow your growth potential,” “make a brand out of your face,” and “get to work and network and devise your strategy--get on the case and get to chasing popularity”--with new drummer Derrick “D’Mar” Martin helping out with a funky rap.

Altogether, it’s a veritable blues-rock self-help primer.

“Kid came up with it,” says Estrin. “The first part of the song has a ‘50s blues feel and then goes into another thing, so he had the vision for the silent movie in the beginning. I came up with some of the lines--like us having to get jobs—but it was mainly Kid. He put it together and did the editing while we were on the road. He stayed up all night while we were gigging and maybe with one day off, and it cost us like $80!”

Estrin was initially concerned that the “in crowd” of music business people and blues and band fans would be the only ones to understand it, “but regular people like it too,” he says. “They get the idea the same way that we do.”

He also gives Andersen, who co-produced Contemporary with him and recorded and mixed it at his Greaseland Studio in Santa Cruz, with coming up with the novelty sounds (cuckoo and alarm clocks, track-ending flatline, “ominous-sounding [music] figure like Jaws or something”) of noirish album lead track “I’m Running.” The song finds the anxious singer running from his mortality, since “Father Time is on my trail.”

“It makes me feel great that I can still think of s**t!” says Estrin. “I’m almost 70, so I need to hurry up. Like I say on ‘I’m Running,’ ‘I feel [Father Time] breathing down my neck.’”

Estrin comes up with another memorable line in “Root of All Evil”: “If money is the root of all evil,” he wonders, “what do you call being broke?” Money “can’t buy happiness,” he further opines, “but it’s a good place to start!”

On the cautionary “Resentement File,” Estrin gets a songwriting assist from estimable blues guitarist/performer Joe Louis Walker.

“We’ve known each other 50 years, and it came from something he said to a friend about treating women right—or else winding up in their ‘resentment file.’ It’s something we all got to get hip to!”

Meanwhile, legendary blues singer/harmonica player Junior Parker is evoked in “New Shape (Remembering Junior Parker).”

“Go to YouTube and watch his version of ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’ and you’ll understand,” says Estrin. “It’s a long album cut, and the whole rap bit I do is an idea I got from it.”

Parker’s fabulous take on the classic Willie Nelson composition finds him out walking his dog Sam on a beautiful day and running into an attractive old flame, then trying in vain to rekindle the romance. Estrin retains Sam the dog--and the concept.

“To be perfectly candid, I only had two verses for the song,” he says, “so Kid suggested I do a rap at the beginning and end. I didn’t really lift anything from Junior verbatim.”

In “New Shape,” then, Estrin comes upon an old gal-pal who looks familiar, who has “really filled out” since their last meeting—but in a good way, “with more to hug than ever before.”

“I kept Sam in, so the rare person who’s hip to Junior’s version will get a kick out of it,” says Estrin. “But the songs on the album really dictate what happens in them, and I have the personnel to deliver it.”

He’s speaking of The Nightcats—Andersen, keyboardist Lorenzo Farrell, and new drummer Martin.

“He comes out of funk and R&B and gospel,” Estrin notes. “He was Little Richard’s drummer for 17 years, and just lifts the energy way up. Lorenzo plays keyboard bass, but we usually have a bass player on the records, so Kid plays bass on a few things, and Quante Johnson, who’s a modern gospel/funk guy, provides some of those funkier grooves and gives them that depth of authenticity. It all dictates to me where we go—especially on ‘Contemporary’ and ‘Resentment File.’”

Longtime Nightcats co-founder/frontman Estrin, who took over the band in 2008 when its namesake co-founder/guitarist Little Charlie Baty retired, feels that Contemporary is “the most fully realized expression of who Rick Estrin & The Nightcats really are and what we’re capable of as a band. With the group’s help, everything I envisioned for the songs got turned up a notch, with everyone getting more and more inspired.”

Indeed, Estrin, one of the greatest performers in any music style, has to force himself to face the audience whenever Martin takes a drum solo.

“I just want to watch D’Mar!” he says. “He inspires me to improve my s**t so I don’t get buried--similar to Little Charlie early on. He’s so compelling to listen to and watch that he’s making me take it to a whole other level. It’s great at this age to have that happening.”

This, and the fact that Estrin has won five Blues Music Awards from The Blues Foundation, including the 2018 Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year and with the full band, the 2018 Blues Music Award for Band of the Year.

“It shows you’re never too old to grow,” says Estrin, “and it started the ball rolling on being ‘contemporary.’”



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