Friday, April 11, 2008

Little Charlie

At some point, I'll get further back in the day, but since I'm reminiscing about road trips to hear the blues with my daughter then I might as jump into recalling Little Charlie and the Nightcats' gig in Dallas. Since Megan's fiance, Brad, would be attending SMU's law school, she decided to take a job in Fort Worth after graduating with her new degree in health education from Emory University a couple of years ago. Since I had written articles in Southwest Blues Magazine, they began sending me monthly copies of their publication which was based in Dallas. Their monthly calendar of blues events kept me well informed of who was doing what and when in the DFW Metroplex.

Being that Little Charlie's front man, Rick Estrin, is positively, absolutely one of the best practitioners of applying the harmonica to blues music, I knew that I couldn't pass them up after seeing that they were being booked into Dallas' Granada Theater. Even though Estrin is not of the same generation as Carey Bell, he is beginning to take on legendary status along with the band's namesake, guitarist Little Charlie Baty. Their band is another of those that I wish I had gotten around to seeing and never did.

Megan and Brad were all for the trip to the Granada. They had been there before and were impressed with the venue. With Brad's appreciation of a wide palette of musical genre's, I knew he would enjoy the show. They had gotten a taste of the blues from Austin City Limit festivals and such and had seen Buddy Guy (he's another story) do his thing at Gruene Hall, of all places.

So Virginia (my lovely wife), Brad, Megan, and I headed out to see Little Charlie and the Nightcats. I convinced them that we should get there early because the opening acts might prove just as worthy. I knew that Christian Dozzler would be playing with the opening band, that was sort of a DFW blues revue. Dozzler was one of those foreigner type guys that knew as much about the blues as anyone from the South. He had moved from Austria to Dallas a few years back to ply his multi-instrumental talent to the blues scene. I had corresponded with him by e-mail after his move in order to track down the couple of cds that he had recorded. I was really impressed with his harmonica tone on these recordings and was hoping he would provide us with some examples of talent there. I was disappointed on that count because his duties were attached strictly to his keyboard. The band was really tight and vocals were passed around between the guitarist (name escapes me right now) and Freddie King's daughter, Shirley, who could belt it out with the best of 'em. Christian told me later in the evening that he does play substantially more harmonica with his own band and is the vocalist (a good one too, without much of an accent), but that he is also a hired gun and play whatever he's paid to do. They did what a good opening act does-warmed the crowd up and got the mood flowing exceptionally well.

Smoking Joe Kubek w/Benois King came out, well, smoking. I've got a couple of recordings by this group and their blues/rock has been hit or miss with me. The genre has grown a little old on me and after Stevie Ray Vaughn's definitive stamp was indelibly applied to the hurdle of those that followed, it has been hard to appreciate attempts at resurrecting that style. Live, though, Joe and Benois were absolutely impressive and they played off each other so very well. While Joe was slinging hot hash, Benois was adding cool rhythmic touches and smooth vocals. Joe's fretwork was so dynamic and he effortlessly fired the notes off. Only Eric Clapton has impressed me in the same way--making it look so smooth and easy. They gained another fan that night.

Maybe at one point in their careers Little Charlie and Rick might have been intimidated to follow such pyrotechnics, but at this stage they appear to be quite comfortable in their confidence to regain the crowd's favor very quickly. There were most likely were some that showed up at the venue to see Smoking Joe as much as Little Charlie, but I'm certain that a conversion to the Nightcats' brand of blues took place before the night was over. Rick Estrin, without doubt, is the coolest character in the blues world and he exemplifies that Hep Cat reputation in his dress, his demeanor, his patter with the audience, and certainly with the songs he sings (most of which he wrote). There are few that have ever turned a blues phrase with more wit and wisdom than Rick Estrin. Some of his tunes border on the Hokum genre popular in the '30s and '40s, but they all have a message in the madness. Folks who have written the Nightcats off, though, as punsters would be wrong because that is just a small piece of their blues mastery and they'll get way deep into the shadow of the blues and Little Charlie can swing the jazz axe with the best of 'em. They were quite grand at the Granada that night doing their do, with Rick swaggering, cool cat posturing, and blowing some fat-toned harp with riff ideas that had no end. Of course he did his trademark Sonny Boy Williamson II trick where he sticks the end of the harp in his mouth, appears to swallow half of it, and blows a tune with a "look ma, no hands" facial expression. Little Charlie is Estrin's perfect foil and keeps up things revved up perfectly. They were "slick", man. Brad, Megan, and Virginia were duly impressed.

Rick was extremely approachable between their last set and an encore number and told me that he was blowing harp through a borrowed Sonny Junior 410 amp supplied for the show. Pretty sure that Little Charlies' was venue supplied, also. Seems quite a few top shelf blues acts are lightning their load by traveling with the least baggage possible. Anyway--

1 comment:

Brad Knapp said...

That was one heck of a night . . . there is probably not a musician as overtly flirtacious as Rick Estrin either.