Q&A with Blues legend Rick Estrin, leader of the musically fearless, wildly entertaining band Rick Estrin & The Nightcats

"The popularity of the Blues always goes up and down, but it’ll never die. Right now, there’s a whole new generation of exciting young blues artists emerging who’ll keep the music alive and who’ll keep spreading the news to future generations."

Rick Estrin:

The Nightcats Hits Keep Coming

Blues vocalist, harmonica master and songwriting legend Rick Estrin, leader of the musically fearless, wildly entertaining, award-winning band Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, doesn’t like to talk much about his own musical superpowers. But ask him about the Nightcats—multi-instrumentalist/musical mastermind/producer Christoffer “Kid” Andersen, keyboardist/organ wizard/bass player Lorenzo Farrell and endlessly creative drummer Derrick “D’Mar” Martin—and he’ll be happy to sing their praises. “This band is killer. I’m enjoying this all more than ever,” says the man who’s been performing and recording professionally since the early 1970s. “It’s a blessing—there’s so much energy, so much collaboration. The band is just so good right now. And the live show is better than ever.” Living Blues calls Rick Estrin & The Nightcats “a terrific blues band with a real character for a front man,” continuing, “Clever, well-crafted songs framed by first-flight musicianship…hugely entertaining, intelligently conceived and executed roots rock with a wickedly cool and otherworldly twist on tradition. Estrin’s harp work is masterful.”                       (Rick Estrin & The Nightcats / Photo by Steve Jennings)

Rick Estrin & The Nightcats’ new album and the band’s sixth release, The Hits Keep Coming (Release Day: Friday, May 10, 2024), packs a powerful punch, with phenomenal musicianship and lyrics—both serious and humorous. Produced by Andersen at his legendary Greaseland USA studio in San Jose, California, the record captures the band’s chemistry and magic in what is certainly among their strongest, most urgent and most cohesive releases so far. The Hits Keep Coming is modern blues at its most potent, intense and fun in all the right places, as Rick Estrin & The Nightcats deliver twelve groove-heavy, hard-hitting songs, including ten written or co-written by Estrin and two surprising covers (one obscurity from Muddy Waters, one from Leonard Cohen that Estrin would have liked to have written).

Interview by Michael Limnios                         Archive: Interview 2013 Rick Estrin

Special Thanks: Rick Estrin & Marc Lipkin (Alligator Records)

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

When I first heard the blues, I identified with the emotions expressed. Even as a kid, hearing the blues made me feel like someone else in this world understood how I felt.

Later on, I began to get a clearer picture of the deep philosophical, and sociological, aspects of the music. I also began to understand the way that humor was sometimes used in the blues - either for purposes of identification, to make a more serious point, or simply to lift the human spirit and take peoples’ minds off their troubles.

The blues made me feel like I wasn’t alone, and as it turned out, it gave me a way to make my way through this world.

One more release with Alligator Records. How did that relationship come about? Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new album “THE HITS KEEP COMING”?

I’ve been associated with Alligator Records since 1986 - That’s when Little Charlie and the Nightcats were first signed to the label.

Originally, we sent an unsolicited demo and it piqued Bruce Iglauer’s interest. He flew out to California to see us. He liked what he heard and signed us to the label. It was like a dream come true for us. With the release of our first album, “All The Way Crazy” we went from being a regionally popular band to touring nonstop throughout the entire world.

After over 20 years with the label, Little Charlie left the band, and I assumed the leadership position. I had always been the frontman, but with Charlie’s departure, it was a bit of an adjustment - Ultimately, band operations became more of a cooperative effort. Lorenzo, Kid, D’mar and I really operate as a team.

The album, The Hits Keep Coming began with the title song. It was written during the pandemic lockdown when we didn’t know if we’d ever get to make another record or ever tour again. I just felt I had something that needed to be said. After that, once the world opened up again, I was already in writing mode and I got to work on writing material for the rest of the album.

It felt wonderful for the band to be back playing together and back to work in the studio at Greaseland - The guys are a joy to create music with, and we also had contributions from a whole bunch of friends - people like the legendary bassist, Jerry Jemmott and the great gospel group The Sons of the Soul Revivers - The record also has some fun little cameos from friends like Charlie Musselwhite, Quique Gomez, and Kid’s wife, Lisa.

"I’d still like to play in some of the few countries we haven’t yet seen - Japan, China, places in Africa - I think we’ve been about everywhere else. I guess my biggest dream right now, or my biggest wish is to keep playing around the world with this band for as long as I can. This current lineup of Nightcats is really something special." (Rick Estrin & The Nightcats / Photo by Steve Jennings)

How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

First, I have to begin to write one song. Starting the writing process can be frustrating but I’ve learned over the years that if I can force myself to endure enough concentrated, prolonged frustration, eventually an idea that I can work with will come. Generally, once something shakes loose and I get going, the work becomes a little easier but it’s still a mostly solitary, mostly tension filled process, interspersed with some exhilarating streaks of success.

I need to go through that ordeal about ten times to complete enough material for an album.

Then I need to familiarize myself with these new songs as performance pieces, and fine tune my approach to them - both vocally and on the harmonica.

Once I’ve done that solitary part I can bring it to Kid Andersen. I show him what I have in mind, and he always has good ideas and suggestions to flesh out the basic sketch that I bring in. Then, it’s time to add Lorenzo and D’mar to the mix - At that point, everyone or anyone in the band might make suggestions, and we might try some different arrangement ideas etc. Once we’re in the studio, it’s a 100% collaborative situation.

Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older? What is your secret music DREAM?

In a certain way it might be easier because I have more experience, but I’ve also written so many songs, that sometimes it feels like it’s more of a challenge to find something new to say.

As far as a “secret music dream” goes, I’ve already lived most of my secret music dreams. As a young man I’ve played harp standing between John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters while they took turns singing “Boom Boom Boom”. I’ve had Muddy tell me, “You play like a MAN, boy!”. I’ve had Robert Jr Lockwood tell me, “Little Walter would be very proud of you”. Those are the type of things that mean the most to me.

I’ve had songs I’ve written cut by Robert Cray, Koko Taylor, Little Milton, John Hammond and Wee Willie Walker.

It’s always super gratifying when a great artist thinks enough of a song of mine to cut it.

I’d still like to play in some of the few countries we haven’t yet seen - Japan, China, places in Africa - I think we’ve been about everywhere else. I guess my biggest dream right now, or my biggest wish is to keep playing around the world with this band for as long as I can.

This current lineup of Nightcats is really something special.

"When I first heard the blues, I identified with the emotions expressed. Even as a kid, hearing the blues made me feel like someone else in this world understood how I felt. Later on, I began to get a clearer picture of the deep philosophical, and sociological, aspects of the music. I also began to understand the way that humor was sometimes used in the blues - either for purposes of identification, to make a more serious point, or simply to lift the human spirit and take peoples’ minds off their troubles. The blues made me feel like I wasn’t alone, and as it turned out, it gave me a way to make my way through this world." (Rick Estrin & The Nightcats / Photo by Steve Jennings)

What would you say San Francisco blues scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

Back in the ‘60s, when I was coming up, the bay area had a great blues scene. There were a ton of great blues and R & B artists and musicians. Charles Brown, Fillmore Slim, Rodger Collins, Johnny Heartsman, LC “Good Rockin” Robinson, Jimmy McCracklin, Little Frankie Lee, Buddy Ace, Lafayette Thomas, the list could go on and on. And those are just some of the people who lived in the Bay Area. Additionally, all the great L.A. based artists would come through regularly - people like T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulsom, Big Mama Thornton - Between Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco, you could see great blues and R & B every night of the week.

And Chicago was unbelievably great too! Legendary artists, people like Eddie Taylor, Big Walter, Sunnyland Slim, Johnny Littlejohn, Johnny Young, and Jimmy Rogers were still playing in small neighborhood taverns every night of the week.

The principal difference that I saw between the two scenes was, the West Coast scene was slicker, and maybe a little more entertainment oriented. The music on the Chicago scene was more “countrified” and down to earth. Different scenes, but they were both like heaven to me.

The Bay Area and Chicago are the only two scenes I was ever a part of. Once I started recording for Alligator with Little Charlie, we were on the world scene - traveling nonstop.

Do you think there is an audience for blues music in its current state? or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

The popularity of the Blues always goes up and down, but it’ll never die. Right now, there’s a whole new generation of exciting young blues artists emerging who’ll keep the music alive and who’ll keep spreading the news to future generations. It’s encouraging to see great young people coming up like DK Harrell, Kingfish, Mack McDonald, Jontavious Willis, Andrew Alli, Stephen Hull and King Solomon Hicks - People like that are proof that the blues will always be around.

Rick Estri & The Nightcats - Home

(Rick Estrin & The Nightcats / Photo by Steve Jennings)

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