Discerning blues harmonica fans have long known that Rick Estrin has it all, but since 2008, when guitarist Charlie Baty retired from his Estrin-fronted Bay Area band Little Charlie & The Nightcats, Estrin’s been fielding his own Rick Estrin & The Nightcats—of which he remains the coolest cat of all.
A consummate live entertainer, Estrin once again proves on record that he’s the wittiest blues songwriter and singer (choice representative songs including “My Next Ex-Wife” and “Dump That Chump”), not to mention a master harpman who merges the readily identifiable styles of the genre’s classicists into his own unique delivery. And on One Wrong Turn (Alligator)—his second album since taking the reins from Batty and debuting the new configuration the following year with Twisted—he’s really got it together.
“It’s more of what we did on the first record, but it sort of jelled in the direction we’re taking,” says Estrin, preparing to hit the road in support of One Wrong Turn, which came out last week. He and the Nightcats, who also include Norwegian guitarist Kid Andersen, drummer J. Hansen and bassist Lorenzo Farrell, are due in New York at Terra Blues on July 19.
“On the last one we kind of hammered out the arrangements after I brought the songs in and it came out good, but on this one, it seemed like when I brought them in, everyone was automatically on the same page with the arrangements and understanding of what kind of songs they needed to be,” he says. “And the recording process was the smoothest and most exciting recording experience I've ever had.”
While not wanting to sound like “a corny hippie,” Estrin adds, “It seemed real synergistic and magical. The guys were coming up with ideas at the same time or a half-second later that were totally complementary.”
For lead track “D.O.G.,” “all I had was the little lick and the melody and lyrics,” he relates. “At one point we were in Brazil backing up the owner of the studio, who said we could record a rehearsal there if we backed him up on some of his songs. During the break I came up with an idea for the bridge--and it seemed so incongruous: I heard that song like a Bo Diddley kind of lick and while the other guys were familiar with the blues and into it, their experiences growing up are completely different than mine because they’re so much younger. Kid heard it like Salt-N-Pepa and J. heard it like War. And the bridge reminded me of The Kinks for some reason, so there were all these disparate influences coming together and working seamlessly.”
On the hysterically hapless “(I Met Her On The) Blues Cruise,” “I had the idea for that interlude section where the band drops out and there’s just strummed chords and running that down, and right behind it the guys were coming up with different sound effects. We were all together and envisioning and experiencing almost the identical thing simultaneously—which I’ve never had in the studio before to that degree.”
Another thing about One Wrong Turn, Estrin points out, is that it has some “really good hooks.”
“'Callin’ All Fools’ has a great melody and is a more traditional, normal kind of blues song, but everybody had the same idea for the feel--which in my opinion is the main thing,” he says. “And ‘Blues Cruise,’ I couldn’t get that chorus out of my head! It was driving me crazy. It’s so stupid, but will not leave you alone—and other people said that, too.”
The melodic “The Legend Of Taco Cobbler” stands out as a surf guitar instrumental—but with very little harmonica.
“Kid had a sort of embryonic version called ‘Mexico Kid’ on a record he made himself several years ago, and he just kept adding to it and developing it,” says Estrin. “We needed another name for it, and we were at a buffet in a casino where there was a dessert bar next to the international food section, and he made a peach cobbler with ice cream—and a ground beef taco! And then he had it again. He had to take several Rolaids afterward!”
“There’s just a tiny bit of harmonica on there—and it’s not even me,” he adds. “But what I do with harp playing, is put it in the service of the song. I like listening to somebody show off sometimes, but to me that should be secondary at best: It’s all about delivering the message.”
Estrin does agree, though, that the harp play sounds especially good on One Wrong Turn. Here he singles out “Old News,” a solo tour de force invoking the chunky quacking effects of the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson II, who is also known as Rice Miller.
“It’s just me singing, playing harp and foot-stomping,” says Estrin. “A guy gave me some recordings of Rice Miller playing solo in Europe. It sounded like someone had turned a tape recorder on at a party! He played differently technique-wise, as anyone would when playing without a band, and it was fascinating to me how he kept the thing going with no band. So I tried to do a version of that concept.”
The lyrics on One Wrong Turn, meanwhile, sometimes diverge from “normal blues subject matter,” he says.
On “Old News,” for example, “I start to get a little oblique, but it’s about how they pump you full of so much bulls**t, and now you can finally see through it.”
The title-track and “Lucky You” get “a little political,” Estrin adds, “though I personalized it so it doesn’t sound preachy. But it’s about the one percent vs. the 99 percent.”
He may have taken a wrong turn, but Estrin leaves no doubt otherwise which part of this equation he’s on, both as citizen and artist.
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