Music: Nine Lives and Then Some

Little Charlie and the Nightcats move into their fourth decade of diverse Blues with their latest tour

Alligator Records

Charlie Baty (left) and singer/harpist Rick Estrin, with a rotating cast of Nightcats, have been making "Americana" Blues (and more) since the '70s.

In the tradition of the J. Geils Band, that gentleman at the front of the stage during a Little Charlie and the Nightcats show, blowing a mean harmonica and singing every kind of Blues from the well of his soul is vocalist/songwriter/harmonica god Rick Estrin and not Little Charlie.

The band's namesake is their guitarist, Little Charlie Baty, who has been peeling off blistering Jazz/Blues licks since he formed the Nightcats over 30 years ago in San Francisco.

"It causes all sorts of confusion that the band is called Little Charlie and the Nightcats," says Baty from his Bay Area home. "That comes from the fact that I actually started the band six months before Rick joined and when I started it, I was the harmonica player and singer. Then I became the guitar player and we never changed the name."

If it seems hard to believe that the Nightcats have been firing up Blues audiences for over three decades, it's partly because the band's first 10 years belonged primarily to San Francisco/Sacramento denizens of the Blues scene.

"We basically played locally, we hardly worked at all in the really early years," says Baty. "There was hardly any work out there. By '79 or '80, we started to work more and we decided to put out a record. That was far enough back that people actually still put out 45s."

A fan/friend of the Nightcats named John Knox had come into some money from an accident settlement and offered to fund the band's single in return for their instrumental services on two songs that he wanted to commit to vinyl. So the Nightcats hit the studio as Knox's backing band and also to record a pair of songs for their debut release, "Run Me Down" and the Estrin composition "Homely Girl."

By that point, Little Charlie and the Nightcats had scored some plum opening gigs for national acts like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Robert Cray and decided the time was right for a full album. The band worked on their debut recording for nearly three years and then shopped the master around, drawing the attention of Bruce Iglauer, head honcho at legendary Chicago Blues label Alligator Records. The news was of the good/bad variety.

"Bruce saw us and he said, 'You guys have more excitement in your live show than this master shows, so I'd like to do a record of you but I want to re-record it,' " recalls Baty. "We were frustrated that we'd spent all this time and money but at the same time, we never dreamed we would get on Alligator to start with."

Signing to Alligator, the Nightcats moved to the next level relatively overnight. They immediately began work on their debut full-length, 1987's All the Way Crazy.

"It was funny, we spent two years or so making a record, and the next one took three days," says Baty. "All of a sudden, we were swept into the fast lane, flying out to Chicago to mix and master, and six months later we were on the road."

Perhaps the Nightcats' most fortuitous break came when they accepted an invitation to open for Blues icon John Lee Hooker.

"They wanted our bass and drums to play in his band; John was always trying to save a penny wherever he could," says Baty with a laugh. "So we would open up for him and then help him out with that stuff. It put us in front of sold-out houses all through the Midwest ... that was how we got going."

That was nearly two decades ago, and Little Charlie and the Nightcats have never stopped going, touring constantly, recording eight more albums (including 2005's spectacular Nine Lives) and generating acclaim from the press and a loyal fan base. From nearly the beginning, the creative core of the band has remained Baty and Estrin, with the Nightcats' rhythm section periodically rotating; the band's current lineup has been in place for four years, with drummer J. Hansen joining in 2002 and bassist Lorenzo Farrell coming in the following year.

The Nightcats' success has been a combination of a number of elements; a gifted rhythm section, Baty's fluid and diverse guitar stylings and Estrin's formidable vocal and harmonica presence, not to mention his undeniable songwriting talent.

"Rick writes songs that come from different styles," says Baty. "He really likes the Blues and writes a lot of songs in a Jimmy Reed kind of style, then he writes songs that are sort of like The Coasters and then he writes songs that can almost sound like a Gospel song. So depending on the style of the song he's written, we try to play the song that way and try to be true to the parameters of that style. We're not trying to expand the Blues definition too much."

Little Charlie and the Nightcats might not be altering the concept of the Blues, but they have most assuredly increased their own personal range over the past 30-plus years. Starting from a Blues foundation, the Nightcats have moved into a number of related genres while retaining a singular and recognizable style.

"Along the way, we've sort of decided we're not necessarily just a Blues band anymore," says Baty. "I'm not exactly sure what the definition of Americana is, but we seem to embody that kind of style more than just Blues. We have elements of Rockabilly and Swing and different kinds of Blues and Jazz and all these different things go in. And Rick's songs tend to be from the perspective of a singer/songwriter as opposed to the real traditional Blues lyrics."

The primary element of the success of Little Charlie and the Nightcats over the past three decades is clearly the partnership of Baty and Estrin. It's rare in the music industry for creative bonds to remain strong for so many years; Baty notes a number of reasons for his and Estrin's longevity.

"It's mutual respect, division of labor is part of it, and the fact that we're both persistent people that don't give up easily," says Baty. "Rick is a great songwriter, a great frontman and a great guy. I'm an instrumental person, I'm always thinking of playing instrumentals, and I'm more of a business person, more of an organizer. So it's like two different parts that come together as a whole.

"One thing we've never butted heads about was ego. I like being back, being like an orchestra conductor ... if you can call three people an orchestra. It all works out fine."

LITTLE CHARLIE AND THE NIGHTCATS plays the Southgate House on Saturday.

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