REVIEWS - Contemporary
by Marty Gunther
Anyone who’s ever spent time listening to Rick Estrin and his band of melodious merrymakers since their debut in 1987 knows they’ve always delivered tunes that reflect modern ideas and sentiments with a great deal of insight and humor. But he and The Nightcats put it in overdrive for this release, their 15th title in the Alligator catalog.
Even though they’ve been there all along, it’s a tongue-in-cheek effort to break through the glass ceiling into the world of mainstream music, and it works on all counts as the band seamlessly stretches its comfort zone to include new, no-holds-barred numbers that incorporate elements that are more familiar in hip-hop and other art forms.
Fear not, though. Contemporary is cutting-edge blues through and through, a template that works perfectly as it stretches sounds formulated a century ago in Mississippi and creates a blueprint that will appeal to music lovers in all genres in future generations.
The core lineup of The Nightcats – Estrin on vocals and harp backed by multi-instrumentalist/producer Kid Andersen and keyboard player Lorenzo Farrell – remains intact since the band reformed after the retirement in 2008 of guitarist and former headliner Little Charley Baty. Amping things up on this one is the addition of Derreck “D-Mar” Martin on percussion. A music educator of note, his background includes 17 years with Little Richard and work with a who’s who of blues and soul artists, including Bobby Rush, Carla Thomas, Syl Johnson, Dorothy Moore and dozens more.
Recorded at Andersen’s award-winning Greaseland Studios in California, the mix also includes former Nightcat Alex Pettersen on drums and Quantae Johnson on bass for seven cuts and guest appearances by Jim Pugh on organ and backing vocals provided by Lisa Leuschner Andersen and James, Walter and Dwayne Morgan, the gospel trio who record as The Sons of the Soul Revivers.
One of the most inventive lyricists of the modern era, Estrin opens the action with “I’m Running,” an unsettling description of being chased by Father Time and having “no time for looking back.” His intense mid-tune solo is interspersed with the ticking and chiming of clocks and the call of the cuckoo. Andersen’s guitar is featured on the soulful “Resentment File,” Rick’s advice for men to treat their women better.
The title tune, “Contemporary,” is up next. After obsessing on claims that “the blues is goin’ nowhere,” he comes to the conclusion that it’s time to change his sound. After a light, breezy and bluesy opening verse, the band erupts atop a deeply funky beat and progresses through multiple formats, including a stellar rap delivered by D-Mar. By the finale, Estrin assures listeners he’s got the “key to guarantee triple-platinum success” and plans to kick everything off with a farewell tour.
Fear not, though, The Nightcats return to their root with “She Nuts Up,” Rick’s hipster description of his lady, who occasionally goes off the rails because of some unexplained past horror. It’s delivered in the same easy-greasy manner fans have come to know and love. Folks will rush to the dance floor for “New Shape (Remembering Junior Parker),” which is propelled by a heavy bass beat and professes love for a woman who’s gone from rail thin to heavier and extra-fine.
The pleasing stop-time instrumental “House of Grease,” and anthem to Kid’s recording studio, features Andersen trading guitar licks with Farrell on keys and stellar work on the kit from D-Mar before Rick wonders if money is the “’Root of All Evil,’ what’s it called bein’ broke?”
The slow blues, “The Main Event,” finds Estrin on chromatic and reflecting on his inevitable demise, surrounded by friends as his body’s been lowered into its grave, before the mood brightens for “Cupcakin’,” a jazzy instrumental penned by Lorenzo on which the entire band has space to shine.
“New Year’s Eve,” which looks forward to turning the page on 2019 and flipping the calendar, precedes a cover of Detroit bluesman Bobo Jenkins’ 1959 hit, “Nothing but Love,” before “Bo Dee’s Bounce,” another pleasing instrumental, closes the set.
Rick Estrin gets more space to show off his prodigious harp skills here than most previous albums, and The Nightcats are at the absolute top of their game on throughout. Available wherever fine CDs are sold — and definitely a strong contender when next awards season rolls around. Pick it up. You won’t be disappointed.
by Frank-John Hadley
Four albums since splitting with guitarist Charlie Baty in the early 2000s, Estrin still showcases a saucy, put-upon attitude that defines its own brand of hip. His affected singing, which reveals skewed thoughts on gender clashes, mortality and the passage of time, lope through original blues and vintage rock-style tunes that also harbor his superb harmonica work. "Contemporary" incorporates modern pop for fun. The one cover, Detroit bluesman Bobo Jenkins' "Nothing But Love" finds Estrin emoting with just the right mix of kitsch and sincerity to vanquish nostalgia. The instrumental "Cupcakin'," in particular, lends credence to claims that the current litter of Cats, including guitarist Kid Andersen, reigns as the best band anywhere.
by David Mac
Rick Estrin is on the short list of greatest harmonica players in the world. He is also on that same list as a songwriter. Intelligence, irony and wit are his calling cards and he deals them with deft precision on Contemporary. It is one of the many reasons to celebrate this September, 20th, Alligator Records release by Rick Estrin & the Nightcats.
Those other reasons have much to do with Estrin’s marvelous band. They remain one of the premier blues ensembles working today. They put Estrin’s material in a smart, sophisticated, uptown urban package that is distinctive. It also fits, albeit a very snug fit at times, within the agreed upon parameters of the blues tradition.
As can be expected Kid Andersen wears a lot of hats. He, of course, is the band’s esteemed guitarist and has been for just over ten years now. He also co-produced the album. He recorded and mixed the entire affair at his Greaseland studios. He handles the upright bass duties on four tracks. He also wrote one of the album’s three instrumentals. It is a Little Milton inspired number appropriately entitled House of Grease.
Estrin is again in the company of long time Nightcat organist and pianist Lorenzo Farrell. He wrote a wonderful instrumental, Cupcaking, on the album in that blues/jazz vein that I dig so much. His contributions on both instruments on Contemporary are indispensable.
Contemporary features a change in the drummer’s chair. The wonderful Norwegian drummer Alex Petersen had been splitting time betwixt Oslo and San Jose. He plays on half the tracks. Former and current Nightcat Derrick D’Mar Martin leaps in and lands in the driver’s seat without so much as missing a beat.
Any album, regardless of the fine musicianship and execution (there is plenty of both here), is only as good as the songs that are being performed. Here we have 12 songs and fifty minute’s worth of great material most of it written by the great Rick Estrin. There isn’t a clunker in the bunch.
With tongues firmly planted in their collective cheeks, and with just the right amount of cheeky humor I might add, Rick Estrin & the Nightcats discuss the virtues of being contemporary on the album’s title track. Just like his 2012 song (I met her on) The Blues Cruise on the Nightcats’ album One Wrong Turn, the people Rick Estrin and company are lampooning are so self-absorbed and clueless they won’t get the joke and those that do will have a good laugh. See, nobody gets hurt. Ignorance is bliss and unfortunately is running rampant in the blues world.
I’m very glad that Rick Estrin & the Nightcats are having none of that. The album Contemporary once again proves this fact. Fresh, creative and rooted in decades old blues traditions is the brand that Rick Estrin & the Nightcats have created and they remain its most consistent practitioners.
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 with All 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.
by Nicolas Teurnier
That's it, Rick Estrin finally drops his blues of another age to embrace auto-tune and a rhythmic reinforced concrete based on funk, rock, hip-hop. From the "contemporary", with a solid career plan detailed by the menu in a title song seriously ... hilarious! That the fans of the Oakland troublemaker are reassured, this is a big joke run by a septuagenarian in good shape. The undeniable harmonicist-storyteller may have accustomed us to excellence, this fifth album Alligator still surprises.
Recipe? A hugely inventive repertoire and perfect cooking, those that burst the flavors in the mouth, those of a timelessly blues straight out of a flagship institution in the field, the Greaseland Studio Kid Andersen. We know the Norwegian-Californian talent on both sides of the console and as a loyal lieutenant of Estrin. Here, his guitar bends over and unfolds a panoply of sharp tools, guided by a keen sense of appropriateness. A rule happily applied by the other Nocturnal Cats: Lorenzo Farrell on the Hammond tasty and the phenomenon Derrick "D'Mar" Martin, new recruit with instead of Alex Pettersen (still present on a big half of titles).
This is a succession of tasty pieces thrown by "I'm Running": Estrin, the time at his heels, rushes the measures with his wringing banter and a roaring harmo. "Resentment File" and its funky coolness kindly warn boring men, "She Nuts Up" balance swing with irresistible flexibility when "New Shape" relies on a generous groove to boast the new forms of an old acquaintance. The marvelous agreement that animates his brigade is also effective on three boiling instruments, just as when the tempo falls and rises a Main event led by a harmo bowels. To hell with the "contemporary" bend, Rick Estrin has always thrilled his blues in the present.
by Richard Ludmerer
For over thirty years Rick Estrin was the front man for Little Charlie & The Nightcats. During the time with them he won two Blues Music Awards; Song of The Year and Best Instrumentalist – Harmonica. When Charlie Baty retired from touring in 2008 Estrin re-formed the band as Rick Estrin & The Nightcats. Since then Estrin has been the recipient of twenty-six BMA nominations. In 2018 alone Estrin received seven nods and won the trifecta; his second award for Song of The Year, Traditional Blues Male Artist of The Year, and most importantly took home the coveted award for Band of The Year.
This is the bands fifth album for Alligator and fourth studio recording. The current lineup includes Estrin, harp and vocals; Kid Andersen, guitar, upright bass and various other instruments; Lorenzo Farrell, organ and piano; and their newest member Derrick “D’Mar” Martin, drums. Other participants include Alex Pettersen, drums; Quantae Johnson, bass; and special guest Jim Pugh. The background vocalists are Lisa Leuschner Andersen and The Sons of The Soul Revivers; James Walter and Dwayne Morgan. The album is co-produced by Andersen and Estrin; and recorded and mixed at Andersen’s Greaseland Studio in Santa Cruz. All of the songs are written by Estrin unless noted otherwise.
This year Estrin received another nomination in the category of Contemporary Blues Male Artist. Perhaps it inspired him to write the title track with Martin and Andersen. Estrin pokes fun at established artists and their vain attempts to capture new and younger audiences as the band explores funk and rap. What sounds like a horn section is Andersen on a Synthesizer.
Two songs are humorous takes on mortality. On “I’m Running” the aging Estrin sings “father time is on my trail. I feel him breathing down my neck, good god he’s right up on my tail”; still no COPD yet as Estrin blows harp like there’s no tomorrow, Andersen plays both guitar and bass, Farrell is on organ, as Pettersen hammers away on his drums. “The Main Event” is about Estrin’s exit strategy.
Estrin won his first BMA in 1994 for his song “My Next Ex-Wife” and it remains one of his most requested. Fans love when he sings about the battle between the sexes. On “Resentment File” Estrin sings “be careful what you do, be careful what you say” as the background singers chime “be careful, resentment file”, the women they never forget; the band gets into a groove with the rhythm section of D’Mar and Johnson. “She Nuts Up” is about living with an explosive female; Andersen plays rhythm guitar and upright bass. On these Estrin is guaranteed to make you smile.
“New Shape (Remembering Junior Parker)” is a narrative inspired by the late Memphis based bluesman that passed in 1971. “House of Grease” is a funky instrumental courtesy of Andersen; Farrell plays piano while Pugh sits in on organ.
“Root of All Evil” features Estrin’s sweet harp before Farrell takes a devilish piano solo “money can’t buy happiness but it’s a pretty good place to start”. “Cupcakin’” is a jazzy instrumental from Farrell featuring the band. “Don’t Like Christmas, crazy ‘bout New Year’s Eve” should receive a lot of airplay that time of the year “it’s a brand new change in me, goodbye 19, 2020 come on in”.
“Nothing But Love”, the only cover, was written by John Pickens Jenkins a.k.a. Bobo who recorded the song on Boxer Records in 1959. The closer “Bo Dee’s Bounce” is a harp instrumental inspired perhaps by Bo Diddley’s 1962 instrumental “Bo’s Bounce”.
Repeated listening will confirm that this is the most musically adventurous recording in Estrin’s illustrious career. Although recognized as a great songwriter he has also become a great bandleader. On “Contemporary” the band stretches the limits of their genre displaying both their creativity and collective musicianship. You can actually hear them inspire one another. This is another award winning effort.
by Txema Maneru
After the sensational demonstration of power that last year was his fourth album, "Groovin 'In Graceland", Rick Estrin & The Nightcats are back with another great study to add to his long and appreciable list in the most prominent label of blues from the last 40 years, Alligator / Discmedi. It should no longer be necessary to remember that Rick Estrin was for many years in harmonica in Little Charlie & The Nightcats. Another long draft proposal in Alligator with extensive discography more than recommended and even with its deserved “Deluxe Edition” compilation as an ideal artifact to know your long career. For many, Rick Estrin and Charlie Musselwhite are the two best white harmonics of today and it is not crazy to think so if you immerse yourself in the discographies for Alligator of both.
It started with Rick Estrin & The Nightcats in 2012 with an intense whirlwind titled “Twisted,” and as they are a spectacular live band, and people claimed it, they hit the ball in 2016 with “You Asked For It… Live!”. Now these winners of the Blues Music Award (an equivalent to the Grammy in the blues genre) and other awards as the best instrumentalist (for its harmonic, of course) for Song Of The Year, return with a more current sound than ever. That does not mean that blues, road rock and root music remain the basis of its popular sound.
It should also be noted how the work of his guitarist Kid Andersen deserves, which is much more than that: it helps him in the productions, composes some brilliant songs and also plays bass, percussions, synthesizers and various keyboards. Almost at his level is a Lorenzo Farrell who embroiders it both with the organ and with his piano. They all bring us 11 new themes and an original version.
They begin with the delicious groove both in the organ and in the harmonica in "I'm Running." On the subject "Contemporary" Andersen collaborates with Estrin in his composition. Together they mark a great song that starts at the rhythm of classic shuffle, but then adds touches to the best Frank Zappa and funk combined with other contemporary follies, yes. "New Shape (Remembering Junior Parker)" is a good swinging reminder full of swing for Mr. Parker. Andersen is the composer of the first of the 3 outstanding instrumentals that the album, "House of Grease" brings. Something also common in this band. His guitar shines, of course, but Farrell also has an organ and piano. By the way, in "Resentment File" also collaborates with him in the authorship his teammate Joe Louis Walker.
"The Man Event 'is an elegant slow theme in which the instrumentation stands out again and Farrell brings, in turn, another fantastic instrument entitled" Cupcakin' ". The only version is that of Jenkins and Moore's" Nothing But Love " It arrives just before the magnificent final with "Bo Dee's Bounce", an instrumental rock roadhouse in which Estrin and Andersen leave, even if it only lasts a little more than two and a half minutes. Hopefully you can approach here for next year with this excellent “Contemporary" blues.
by Juan Marquez Leon
Now considered one of the best harmonica players in the industry, it's been 50 years since Rick Estrin offers us, with freshness and humor, the joy of singing and blowing. After his first tests with people like John Littlejohn, Eddie Taylor or Johnny Young, he had been part of the Little Charlie & The Nightcats training for 30 years, singing and chromatic harmonica. The little Charlie left, the Cats of the Night rank behind the new boss, Estrin. Since 2008, the new guitarist is Kid Andersen. The other guys are the faithful Lorenzo Farrell (keyboards), Alex Pettersen (drums), who now seems to leave his sticks to Derrick D'Mar Martin, which joins the bassist Quantae Johnson. And damn, all this little world is doing damn well; Listen to the exchange in the instrumental 'Cupcakin' ', it's really breathtaking. Different styles of blues are tackled with talent during this recording, but what is especially striking is the production of Kid Andersen, clear, modern and 'colorful'. For example, titles like 'Resentment File' or 'Contemporary' glide gently to more current sounds, see hip hop or metal! On October 5th, Rick Estrin will be 70 years old, wish him a happy birthday and hope for other albums of this level. Pure pleasure.
Most would consider Rick Estrin a true believer, playing harmonica in his native San Francisco, California at fifteen years old, coming up in the Bay Area Blues scene, playing five nights a week backing infamous Bluesman/pimp Fillmore Slim. He formed Little Charlie and the Nightcats with Charlie Baty in 1973, and fronted the band when Charlie retired from touring in 2008, adding guitarist Kid Andersen to the existing line-up and staying on the road as Rick Estrin & The Nightcats. With multiple Blues Awards for the singer and the band, Rick is the true believer poster boy, and yet on the recent release from Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, the choice is made to go Contemporary.
Happily, the mood passes quickly and the song “Contemporary” is tongue-in-cheek, the track featuring speaker-freezing bass bumps, compressed vocals, and a resume-boasting bridge. The remaining cuts of Contemporary puts the songs on the same level as Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, solid vehicles of the Blues and all its many rhythms and forms. The beat is the wake-up call that snaps album opener “I’m Running” into a Blue-noir dawn while Blue Funk tinges “New Shape (for Junior Parker)” and a rhythmic ricochet sashays across “Root of All Evil”. Rick Estrin & The Nightcats become a machine on the instrumental cuts, the sound playful in “House of Grease” and frenetic in “Cupcakin’” as Contemporary locks into a Vintage Rock’n’Roll Blues groove for “Bo Dee’s Bounce”. Contemporary claims “New Years Eve” as its favorite holiday and slows the Blues to a simmer for “The Main Event” as Rick Estrin & The Nightcats share the sad story of a lover with a few loose screws in “She Nuts Up” as they read “Resentment File” on a pop and click groove.
by Eric Schuurmans
“ Rick Estrin's some new spin amazes and confirms his mastership… “
Rick Estrin grew up in San Francisco as a teenager, where he got to know the "other" world on the street with his own characteristic figures. He was 12 when his older sister gave him Ray Charles ’album‘ The Genius Sings The Blues ’. Then he also discovered Jimmy Reed, Champion Jack Dupree, Mose Allison and Nina Simone.
At the age of 15, Rick gets his 1st harmonica and at the age of 18 he already performs in local clubs. He jammed for the first time with blues master / guitarist Lowell Fulson (1921-1999) and then played with R&B giant Z.Z. Hill and with guitar legend Travis Phillips (in a band with frontman Fillmore Slim), who introduced him to Rodger Collins, who became his 1st real mentor.
Estrin moved to Chicago at the age of 19, where he meets Muddy Waters. Estrin was advised by Muddy: “You outta sight, boy! You got that sound, boy! You play like a man, boy! ... ”. Due to a missed phone, a planned Estrin tour with Muddy (stupidly) was canceled ...
Estrin moved back to the SF Bay Area where he founded, together with guitarist Charlie Baty, Little Charlie (Baty) & The Nightcats. Estrin was their front man for over 30 years and recorded 9 albums with them. The line-up consisted of Rick Estrin (vocals, harmonica), Charlie Baty (guitar), Jay Hansen (drums) & Lorenzo Farrell (keys). When Baty retires (almost) in 2008, Estrin, Hansen and Farrell continue with guitarist Kid Andersen (Charlie Musselwhite) as Rick Estrin & the Nightcats. The "new" band Rick Estrin & the Nightcats debuted with Alligator Records in 2009 with "Twisted". As a successor to "One Wrong Turn" , "Groovin" In Greaseland " will follow in 2017.
The 4th Alligator album was named "Contemporary". It is an album with 12 new Estrin songs that he recorded in producer Kid Andersen's Greaseland Studio in Santa Cruz, CA. He did this together with Andersen, Lorenzo Farrell (keys) & Derrick "D’Mar" Martin (drums). The foursome again provides an intense mix (including some instrumentals) of electric blues and swinging West Coast blues. We soon hear how this all sounds in the opener "I'm Running" in which Farrell plays all his skills on organ, Kid Andersen on bass, Alex Pettersen (here) on drums (instead of D'Mar) and of course Estrin on harmonica . In “Resentment File” it is Andersen who can play on guitar and it is D’Mar's percussion that mainly determines the groove. It then becomes a bit of a swing on the title song “Contemporary”, which becomes a mix of several, sometimes exotic ingredients and D’Mar that raps, which is certainly getting used to. "She Nuts Up" is catching up with the women and "New Shape (Remembering Junior Parker)" is still somewhat exotic. The funky "House of Grease", with Jim Pugh behind the organ, is the first instrumental, "Root of All Evil" reminds me of his colleague, the artist with the 3 lives, Al Basile and in the quiet "The Mean Event ”, Estrin uses his chromatic harp. "Cupcakin" is another instrumental, "Nothing but Love" a drowsy song about how beautiful love is and "Bo Dee's Bounce", the last up-tempo instrumental song with which he already hops after 51 minutes.
Again Rick Estrin with his Nightcats on ‘Contemporary’ reaches the high musical level that we are used to. He will certainly please the countless fans he has here again.