Monday, October 12, 2009
Happy Birthday To Me (and Ricky Estrin)
I turned 58 on Friday without much fanfare. My wife was still in Corpus Christi attending CPS foster parent seminars, my son crawled out of bed with his mind on school and my birthday slipped his mind. My daughter called with discussion topics unrelated to the day I was born, and I had to jog her memory. I had already put the pedometer, that she sent me for the event, to task a week ago--so she actually offered her congratulations early. So, the house felt a bit emptier than it normally does on a Friday morning. I did go over to my mom's in the afternoon to eat the chocolate birthday cake that she had ordered from HEB and to accept her cash donation to my birthday fund.
I also sampled the Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood Live from Madison Square Garden DVD birthday present and really enjoyed watching these two guys perform with same passion that they had when they played together as 20 year olds--this time unenhanced by chemical assistance. Eddie C. Campbell's new Delmark release, Tear This World Up, played a part in my one man birthday celebration. Maybe I'll get back to these two worthy musical productions later, but right now I'll get on to the main event.
First, I'll explain using Ricky for Estrin's first name. I've always gone by Ricky for Richard and plenty of times that gets shortened to Rick. I just happened to hear crackerjack bassist, Ronnie James Webber, call Estrin by the name of Ricky at one point after he was invited to sit in with the Nightcats (more on that in a bit). It seemed to drop a few years from Rick's 60, hearing him called Ricky. I was once told that I should go my Richard, because Ricky seemed to be more juvenile. I'll take juvenile. Of course, when I watch Ricky Estrin, I think more in terms of juvenile delinquency, if he lived anywhere close to some the tales he sings about. So, the name Ricky fits the Bad Boy of the Blues persona just fine.
I'll back up a bit here and explain that I had ordered an online e-ticket from Dan Electro's Guitar Bar for the Rick Estrin and the Nightcats' show. My expectations were that the club would be extremely packed and getting an advanced ticket would be wise. My only reservation about the reservation was the possibility of stormy weather. Stormy weather + Houston traffic = nightmare. So, I sort of sat around listening to my new birthday music and the downpour on my rooftop, debating whether or not to weather the weather. By six o'clock the rain had slacked enough for me to make the dash to Houston.
I left early in order to make it by the time the doors opened at 8 and to find parking in the lot, which I knew would be limited. As I stood under the front porch awaiting entry with only five other folks, one of life's missed opportunities arose as a character stepped out from the club's door for a smoke. The thought crossed my mind that the shaggy looking, bearded fellow might just be the band's guitarist, Kid Andersen, but I just as quickly dismissed the thought. Once we got into the club and he picked up a Les Paul and started slinging out notes for the sound check, then I figured that I could have at least said hello to him outside. I did get the opportunity to meet local harp player, Larry Bernal, who was among the five waiting with me outside, along with his 7th grade son. Steve Schneider had mentioned Larry to me several times in the past and I always wondered about this guy who at one time had one of the only Sonny Junior III amplifiers ever made. So, I entered the club with Larry and his son and we took a front row table that also ended up being occupied by Steve, Carlos Ramirez, and Andy Edwards--all Houston harp guys. I really enjoyed their company. My good friend Sonny Boy Terry also showed up with his lovely wife, Jenny. Those two make such a beautiful couple; they are so proud of each other. So, I was in great company for a show featuring one of the world's greatest blues harp players.
If you are still reading this, I'll get to the birthday heading now. Somewhere (I can't remember where, maybe I dreamed it) I read that Rick Estrin's birthday was either on October eighth or on the ninth like mine. So, when Larry enticed him to our table saying that Scott Berberian said hello,(Scott's the wizard behind the Meteor harp amps and Larry has two of his Mini-Meats and is ordering the 15" speaker version), I wished Rick a happy birthday and he appreciated it and didn't deny it and I told him that I was celebrating my 58th with him and he appreciated it and said, "Man, I turned 60". Oh, and then he kicked ass all night long.
I used to carry a note pad with me back in the day when I seriously tried to get someone to publish my blues articles, but I'd rather just sit back and enjoy the show--what I'm saying is that I don't recall set list songs and such things as that. I'll tell you this, though. I meant to pack a camera, but didn't do that either. The Nightcats opened with a number that absolutely smoked the place and it would have been an encore tour de force for lesser bands. The smiles at our table indicated that, "It just don't get any better than this"--but it did and did and did. Rick turned Kid Andersen loose on that first number and he never did get him back in his cage--not that he had any intentions of doing that.
I say cage, because Kid Andersen is absolutely a wild man on guitar. I need to mention that once he donned his stage clothes and slicked back his long blond hair, this bearded Norwegian proved to be an excellent sidekick for Estrin's ultimate showmanship. Superman jumped from the phone booth. He wowed us! Yep, he really did and the room was filled with a bunch of Houston musicians eating up his tonal grooves--that varied immensely. He'd rock the billy awhile like Johnny Burnette, shoot out reverbed ladened staccato jabs, ride a slow down low down wave that washed out over the club, sling a few leg kicks to the air, pick with his teeth, and basically just do the do. Take Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Hubert Sumlin, Guitar Slim, and Junior Watson, roll them up and feed 'em a mushroom or two, and it might get close to describing what comes out of the Kid's amplifier. Once he gets rolling, it ain't no telling what notes will be firing out from the stage. I think back a few posts ago about Rick Estrin's Alligator Records release, Twisted, in which I described his instrumental Earthquake, as sounding quite like Freddy King on meth. He did that one (which Estrin said was a hit in Russia) and burned it down to the filter. Strange thing about it all, is that he showed immaculate restraint when called for and proved that he's a master at backing a harmonica player. Those types are rare. With all his guitar antics, though, there is still no way that Rick Estrin got upstaged at any point during the night. Estrin just reclaims his turf once the slinging is done and sometimes with one well placed harp note, blown with the finest tone known to man (or blues man) at least.
Most of the night's set came from the aforementioned CD or the one right before it called On The Harp Side, with a few chestnuts from his Little Charlie albums. I could run down each and every one of those, but I'm not. Let's just say that if you have those two CDs, then you have a good idea of what the Nightcats laid on us last Friday night. He did throw down an outstanding version Little Walter's Off The Wall, just in case us harp players thought that we were somebody. He nailed it down wonderfully, blowing through a digital reverb pedal and analog delay fed into his Harp King amp with 6x10" speakers. Got some kind of wall of sound going--which he also kicked in when he whipped out his chromatic harp. He prefaced a few of his witty, humorous songs with a humorous tale as how the idea entered his cranium. Those snippets were priceless. He had us all eating out of his hand.
Of course, if you've seen a Little Charlie and the Nightcats show, then you know what a cool cat daddy Rick Estrin is, which no one in show business comes close to matching, and few can match his blues harp skills. The difference now is that Rick leads the Nightcats and he puts his harp in his mouth a whole lot more often and proves that point song after song. You've also seen him put the whole harp in his mouth (like a cigar) during a Sonny Boy Williamson II number and he pulled that trick out for us, too. He amazes me with just how solid his acoustic intonation is when he's emulating this master.
These are Rick's Nightcats. J Hansen impressed every harp player in the club with his knack for driving what Rick wanted driven on drums. My buddy, Sonny Boy Terry said that he wished that every drummer in town could witness how a drummer should back a harp player by listening to Hansen. He proved quite the witty lyricist and singer himself when he took the mic to sing the double entendre, I'm Taking Out My In-laws. Lorenzo Farrell slapped the standup bass and locked stepped with Hansen all night. Seems that they spent some time together in the past and both have a little jazz in their resume. Rick gave them a bit of time to showcase themselves a time or two during the night. Great rhythm section duo dudes. Farrell even slid over to the keyboards to add a bit of spice to the stage sound. The last set he slid over there and stayed awhile for an unexpected treat. Ronnie James Webber was in the house and Rick brought him to the stage to plunk the Fender electric bass. Ronnie James played with the Nightcats for about a decade and with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and with Mark Hummel and recently with the Mannish Boys and, and, and...Let's just say that he knows how the blues is suppose to go and he knows how to go about doing it really well. I enjoyed watching him pick the bottom out of things. It was a real treat watching him work. He seemed to really get off on a low down harp instrumental that he claimed that someone named Greg requested. Estrin sucked the song for all that it was worth.
Of course, that brings me back to the Nightcats' guitarist. He's just plays the best guitar that I've heard in a long, long time and he co-produced the Alligator release with Estrin, so he knows his way around the sound board. His last employer was Charlie Musselwhite (he's plays on the Delta Hardware release, so that seals the deal for his credentials as the real deal. Charlie don't hire no slouches on the six string. I've heard his work previously from what he laid down on John Nemeth's and RJ Mischo's last recordings, but nothing prepared me for the what he kicked out live and in person. He's a phenom! I'm heading to CD Baby to pick up his own Greaseland.
Rick Estrin has himself one hell of a band and I feel privileged to have witnessed them perform their magic. It's the Estrinman, though, that makes the whole engine work and he has definitely mastered the master of ceremonies better than a carnival barker, and did I mention that he plays some of the best blues harp in the land?
Bottom line--this was the best birthday gift that I've ever given myself. Great night! Great band! Great company! Get over to Rick's site and get yourself a Nightcat fix. Anyway--'nuff for now.