Sacramento-based blues, swing and jump masters Little Charlie & The Nightcats have much in common with their feline counterparts. They take great (musical) leaps and always land on their feet, they’re constantly on the prowl (gigging all over the world), and, with all of the various styles of music they play, they seem to have many lives. Their new CD, Nine Lives, is the ninth album of their remarkable career. As on their previous recordings, they combine unsurpassed musicianship and inventive lyrical vision with their deep understanding of blues and jazz traditions to produce music that is both technically brilliant and soulfully streetwise. “Endlessly impressive,” raves the Associated Press. “Marvelously entertaining and brilliantly played,” agrees The San Francisco Examiner.
For Rick Estrin, songwriting is an important art form. “I like songs that tell stories,” he says, “songs that are well-crafted and meaningful.” He cites Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Dixon, Percy Mayfield, Baby Boy Warren and Leiber and Stoller as his main songwriting influences. As a harp player, Estrin has few peers. His work on the reeds is at once deep in the tradition of harmonica masters Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Walter Horton and Little Walter Jacobs while at the same time pushing that tradition forward. “Rick Estrin sings and writes songs like the brightest wise guy in all bluesland and blows harmonica as if he learned at the knee of Little Walter,” raves Down Beat. The San Francisco Chronicle sums it up this way: “Rick Estrin is an amazing harmonica player, a soulful lead vocalist and a brilliant songwriter.”
Matching Estrin’s prowess lick for lick are Charlie Baty’s wild, seemingly impossible guitar excursions. From jazz to blues to rock to surf, Baty has all the styles mastered. He seamlessly blends various elements into a guitar sound that is his alone. Guitar World declares, “Baty’s straight blues playing is eye-popping...he stretches solos to the breaking point, skittering on the edge, where one wrong note will bring the whole thing crashing down.” “Little Charlie Baty plays as much guitar as Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy put together,” raves The Village Voice. “He is one of the swiftest, most fluent guitarists working in any genre.” Rounding out the Nightcats are drummer J. Hansen (who’s been with the band since 2002) and bassist Lorenzo Farrell (who joined in 2003), both veterans of the Bay Area’s Steve Lucky & The Rhumba Bums. Hansen, who has also toured with members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, makes his songwriting and singing debut on Nine Lives with his composition, “Deep Pockets”. Farrell is a key member of the San Francisco jazz scene, equally adept at performing and composing Brazilian, modern and big band jazz. Hansen and Farrell combine to produce one of the most exciting rhythm sections in the Nightcats’ history.
Baty first met Estrin in the early 1970s while Baty was a harmonica-playing UC Berkeley student. With Rick already an accomplished harp player, Baty decided to switch to guitar full time and the two formed a blues band. After relocating to Sacramento, Baty quickly emerged as a take-no-prisoners, one-of-a-kind guitarist, equally at home playing swing, jazz, blues, or any variations he could imagine. With the addition of a drummer and a bass player, Little Charlie & The Nightcats were born.
In 1986 the band sent an unsolicited tape to Alligator Records. Alligator president Bruce Iglauer was blown away. He flew to Sacramento to see the band perform and was sold. Their debut album, All the Way Crazy, was released in 1987 to overwhelming success. Almost immediately they went from playing small Sacramento blues clubs to performing concerts and festivals around the country and around the world. After six more studio albums and a greatest hits disc, guitarists, harp players, songwriters, fans and critics remain overwhelmed. “Can anyone name a better guitarist than Little Charlie?” asked Blues Revue. “Who can out-tough Rick Estrin? Little Charlie & The Nightcats play some of the deepest blues out there.”
“We’re good at putting on a show,” boasts Estrin. “People don’t go out to see people who look like them. They want to see something special. I was schooled in this business to be a showman, and that’s what you get when you come to see us.” The Chicago Reader described their live show as “party exuberance in the context of superb musicianship. Baty sometimes sounds as if he’s growing musically right in front of your eyes.”