With the release of Little Charlie & the Nightcats' new album, Nine Lives, the band's label, Alligator Records, is touting singer-harmonica player Rick Estrin as one of the most accomplished songwriters in blues.
Estrin doesn't dispute that opinion.
“I'd say that's probably true,” Estrin says. “You're talking about blues, and in that genre, most of the great writers are no longer with us. A lot of what's being written today in blues is just sort of lowest common denominator, kind of first thing off the top of your head-how fast can I get to the guitar solo so I can show off-or something.
“There are a few guys who write real songs. I'm sure there are guys I'm not aware of in this genre.... [But] generally there are a lot of generic songs and song ideas and lyric ideas and lyrics that are passing for songs in blues.”
To be sure, Estrin is not adding to the generic blues problem. His songs have helped his band grow into one of the most accomplished and diverse blues groups to come onto the scene during the past two decades.
But such respect has not come quickly or without a struggle.
In fact, when Little Charlie & the Nightcats came onto the scene with the 1987 album All The Way Crazy, they were seen as somewhat of a novelty act. Estrin himself was sometimes viewed in a cartoonish light.
The reasons were obvious. That first album-along with the band's next two releases (Disturbing the Peace and The Big Break)-played up their funny side. The first two album covers depicted the group as mischievous party crashers, while the one on The Big Break showed them making a prison break.
The music wasn't any less jokey. Estrin-penned songs such as “Dump that Chump,” “TV Crazy” and “Poor Tarzan” featured legitimately funny lyrics and cheap gaffes. And Estrin, in his sly, drawling voice and magnetic grin, only served to further the comical image of the group.
Since those first three albums, though, Little Charlie & the Nightcats have laid off the puns. Album titles and cover art have been far more straightforward, and while Estrin's wit still crackles in his lyrics, out-and-out funny songs have been rare on recent records.
“I think [Nine Lives] is pretty reflective of how the band sounds,” he says. “The thing I really love about this band is there's just so much interplay. Everybody's reacting to what somebody's doing. It's an organic kind of a style of playing together, where you're constantly being creative. There's always something new happening.
“There's a good chemistry among the four of us right now.”
Little Charlie & the Nightcats play at Humphrey's Backstage Lounge, 7 p.m. on April 15. $15. 619-220-8497.