Release date: September 20, 2019
Alligator Records By Greg Easterling
One of the blues' longest running acts, Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, is back with Contemporary, a strong new release on Chicago's legendary Alligator Records that continues a nearly unprecedented run that began over forty years ago. On their latest studio album, Rick and the band deliver a stylish, highly listenable release that taps into blues tradition while highlighting current issues in their trademark witty and wise cracking way.
How many non-oldies groups have weathered a four-decades-long, two-stage career, including a name change and a number of band members? They began life as a band in 1976 when harpist/vocalist Estrin and guitarist Charlie Baty formed Little Charlie & The Nightcats in the San Francisco Bay area of California. They recorded a string of ten albums for Alligator with Baty, beginning withAll The Way Crazy, quietly becoming one of the label's longest running acts as bigger names came and went. Baty retired from the road in 2008 but the band played on with current guitarist Christoffer “Kid” Andersen taking over from Baty. The group was rebranded as Rick Estrin & The Nightcats for Stage Two, an effective way of signifying a major change in personnel without losing the continuity and blues credibility built up over the previous thirty years.
Their longtime association with Alligator has continued with five more albums, including the latest, Contemporary, the fourth studio recording under the Rick Estrin/Nightcats moniker. In this age of short attention spans and a greatly diminished record industry, it's a relationship to be valued. Despite Rick's charismatic stage presence, there's been a tendency perhaps to underestimate the Nightcats contributions to the blues, a wrong that was partially righted last year when they were awarded a 2018 Blues Music Award for Band Of The Year. Lorenzo Farrell continues as keyboardist, a position he has occupied since 2003 and the Little Charlie incarnation of the band. The Nightcats most recent addition is onetime Little Richard drummer Derrick “D'Mar” Martin who joined the band in time to play on seven of the album's 12 tracks.
Contemporary starts off fast, hitting the ground with “I'm Running”, a tense, film noir like opening theme that addresses the concerns of aging baby boomers. Instead of invoking the traditional blues hell hound, Rick sings “Father Time is on my trail/I feel him breathing down my neck,” following up with the first of many tasty harp solos, one of the major reasons to listen to a Nightcats release. Schooled by the classic Chess recordings of blues harmonica masters Sonny Boy Williamson, a.k.a. Rice Miller, and Little Walter Jacobs, Estrin has become one of the foremost blues harpists of today.
Respected Bay Area bluesman Joe Louis Walker helped Rick to write the next cut, “Resentment File”, a tongue-in-cheek swinging gentleman's guide to the modern gal. “You can't do these women like you used to” lectures Professor Estrin in Relationships 101, warning of a “deep well of resentment/be careful/she ain't ever going to forget it.” The so-called Sons of the Soul Revivers (guest vocalists James Walter and Dwayne Morgan) supply extra vocal punch for some call and response with Rick on the chorus.
The much discussed title cut “Contemporary” comes third, the subject of a slapstick video that you will find on YouTube instead of MTV in this millennium. The band slides through a musical send up of hip hop, rap and pedestrian sounding funk and heavy rock as Estrin comically concludes, “They said the blues ain't going nowhere/said I got to change my sound/said I'm headed for oblivion/my style just too lowdown”. Between the verses, Rick pulls out another great harp solo. Farewell tours, comeback concerts, and modern marketing cliches like “thinking outside the box,” “growth potential,” “reinventing yourself,” and “expanding your demographic base” all come in for Estrin's laser sharp assessment. Drummer Martin hams it up with a convincing rap parody over his rock solid percussion work.
“She Nuts Up” is a bluesy strut that reexamines the eternal battle of the sexes and the desire to understand the ever changing moods. After praising his partner, the song's protagonist allows a breakdown is dead ahead and there's no way to avoid it. In the end though, “She makes everything right when we turn out the lights and we get to rockin' the house”. All's well that ends well with more great harmonica work from Estrin. Next it's purely physical with no psychological analysis offered in “New Shape (Remembering Junior Parker)”. Estrin marvels at a “girl all grown up” in a swaggering blues romp highlighted by a fine electric keyboard solo from Lorenzo Farrell who, next to Rick, stands as the longest serving member of the Nightcats since 2003.
At the halfway point of Contemporary, it's time to chill with an instrumental to showcase the band's musical prowess. The title “House of Grease” is a salute to the studio where the Nightcats now record, Greaseland Studio in San Jose which is owned by Kid Andersen. Kid's other studio credits include Tommy Castro and Chicago's Nick Moss. Fittingly, it's a jam based on a guitar groove led by Andersen, giving the band a chance to blow for 5:31.
When the words resume, it's an attempt to understand another great human motivation. “Root Of All Evil” takes its title from a biblical reference as Estrin asks, “If money is the root of all evil, what you call being broke?” Now while the actual Bible verse qualifies that it is the “LOVE of money that is the root of all evil,” we won't split hairs here for the sake of a blues lyric! Estrin also questions the practicality of scriptural injunctions about “turning the other cheek” and “love your neighbor” in our modern age of rampant gun violence and internet based fraud and voyeurism. Rick solos first before the focus shifts to another great keyboard showcase for Lorenzo Farrell. The Sons of the Soul Revivers return for extra vocal support as well.
Another one of life’s great issues -- namely death -- is examined in “The Main Event,” a blues dirge driven by Estrin's harp work and some sweet guitar licks from Kid Andersen. Farrell also weighs in with a classic retro sounding Ray Charles inspired organ solo that sounds like it comes from another place and time. Lorenzo is the author of the next instrumental jam, “Cupcakin,” that gives all the band's principal soloists a chance to show off over a strong piano progression played by Farrell.
A brand new ode to “New Year's Eve” follows, especially time stamped for 2020 with renewed hope for the upcoming 365 days. And finally there’s the album's only track to come from outside the band, “Nothing But Love,” a cover of a Bobo Jenkins song. It's a nice, loving way to end the album lyrically. Contemporary closes with an instrumental, “Bo Dee's Bounce” serving as a coda this time.
Contemporary was produced by Kid and Rick at Greaseland in Santa Cruz, CA but mastered back in sweet home Chicago at the Boiler Room by Collin Jordan and Alligator label chief Bruce Iglauer. Additional musical support was provided by Alex Pettersen on drums, Quantae Johnson on bass and backing vocals, Lisa Andersen on background vocals and Jim Pugh on organ.
When 2019 Grammy Award nominations come around, will Contemporary fall into the Traditional or Contemporary Blues categories? Because it needs to be recognized by the Grammys as well as other Blues award organizations. We'll let those groups sort it out while we enjoy another satisfying release from Rick Estrin and the Nightcats as they continue their long road into 2020.
For info: https://www.alligator.com/
Greg Easterling holds down the 12 midnight – 5 a.m. shift on WDRV (97.1 FM) He also hosts American Backroadson WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.