Album review: RICK ESTRIN & THE NIGHTCATS – You Asked For It…Live!

Alligator [Released 08.07.14]

It’s hard not to warm to the award winning harp player Rick Estrin’s style. His understated humour and wry lyrics are backed up by stellar harp playing and real showmanship. He’s prospered since taking over The Nightcats moniker to put himself at the forefront of the music as well as the band.

Back in the Little Charlie & The Nightcats days he was arguably the de facto star anyway, with his cartoon cut out image – stacked up hair, pencil thin moustache and sharp suits – to his humorous lyrics and a deep harp tone that dominates the album from the opening cut ‘Handle With Care’ onwards.

Image aside, his unique mix of rib tickling relationship songs, soulful singing and deep toned harp playing make him the genuine article.

Influenced by Sony Boy Williamson 11,  the soulful Percy Mayfield and West coast swing, Estrin is that rare commodity, an old school harp playing vocalist who distils old wine in new bottles.

Recorded on his birthday in front of a sell out crowd in his home town of San Francisco, ‘You Asked for It’ (a reference to his first overdue live album since 1991’s ‘Captured Live’ with Batey) is everything that long time fans could wish for.

‘You Asked For It’ is both a resume and an update of a solid career that has garnered him a Blues Music Award for Song of the Year and Best Instrumentalist for Harmonica category.

Sparked by ripping guitarist Kid Anderson whose stinging guitar lines bring real spark to ‘Keep Your Big Mouth Shut’, the band is anchored by Rick’s long time rhythm section of Lorenzo Farrell on bass and keyboards and stand-up drummer Jimmy Hansen, who brings a contrasting on vocal on the laid back ‘Baker Man Blues’

Estrin has never been the greatest blues vocalist, but his gentle irony, nuanced humour and an occasional rap, as on the old favourite ‘Clothes Line’, draws you in. His unique phrasing and the band’s instrumental variety keeps everything interesting, especially when the band’s strong rhythmic input and Estrin’s repeated harp phrases colours ‘My New Old lady’.

His ever present sense of humour also brings a smile to the thematically connected ‘My Old Ex-Wife’, as he addresses the crowd and once again draws the listener in:  “All right settle down,” he tells the crowd.  “Let me ask you something. How many people out there have, uh, ever been divorced? That’s character building stuff.

The experienced showman and his road tested band also swing on an old Estrin favourite ‘Smart Like Einstein’, a big-toned trademark shuffle that finds Lorenzo seamlessly switching from bass to organ in between Estrin’s understated humorous verse: “I lay down last night had such a beautiful dream. I was smart like Einstein, rich like Donald Trump.”

Estrin relies on his stage craft to respond to a request forDump That Chump’, which he quickly transforms into a crowd chant.  The band duly plays it with some swagger.

Estrin is also a generous band leader who is happy to let the band stretch out and explore the subtle dynamics of his songs. He doesn’t even play harp on the guitar-led, organ feature and cool blues of ‘Never Trust A Woman’, while ‘Don’t Do It’ works towards what he humorously calls ‘fever pitch’ rocking.

The gently thumbed acoustic bass, harp and vocal led end-piece ‘Too Close Together’ is simply a blues man enjoying his craft. His back door man narrative and aching harp draw whoops and yells from the crowd on the perfect exposition of less is more.

‘You Asked For It…Live’ is close up front and intimate blues album played by one of the best in the business whose time has come. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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