Rick Estrin's the kind of colorful character who could mesmerize you from happy hour to last call with his colorful stories and dry, easygoing wit. That same congenial charisma comes out onstage in wry songs — like the W.C. Handy Song of the Year Award-winning "My Next Ex-Wife" — delivered with the snappy interior rhythms of a funky beatnik fronting a bluesy bar band.
Little surprise then that Estrin's musical journey was fueled by visits to San Francisco's Market Street in the early '60s period between the beats and the hippies. He was a 10-year-old delinquent drawn to the street's music and clamor. He discovered the harmonica in his teens, around the time his father died, and school never had a chance.
"After he died nobody in the house could kick my ass, so I just got into music, thank God. I don't know where I'd be if it wasn't for that," says Estrin.
"There was all kinds of colorful stuff going on," he adds, recalling the lure of '60s San Francisco. "Street people — not the mentally ill — but real street people. That stuff was so much more interesting to me than anything they were talking about in school."
By the time he'd reached 18, Estrin was jamming with unsung blues legends like Lowell Fulson and Travis Phillips. His early 20s were spent traveling between the Bay Area and Chicago. He met "Little" Charlie Baty during one such trip and, years later, when Baty moved to Sacramento, they ended up playing together as Little Charlie & the Nightcats.
"He was a harmonica player, but he also knew how to play guitar," Estrin says. "Nobody knew how to play backup for a harp, so he learned guitar to show the guys what to do behind him."
With Baty on guitar and Estrin on harp, the group played a few rocky shows in '76 and slowly gathered steam. Thirty years later they're an institution. So when Baty decided to bow out in 2008, the group was reconstituted as Rick Estrin & the Nightcats.
Estrin knew he'd need to find someone with comparable skills to Baty, which would be no small feat. Enter Christoffer "Kid" Andersen, a 32-year old guitarist who'd come to America in 2001 and made a stir as a member of Charlie Musselwhite's band. "We had played with him before and he would sit in and he was always great," says Estrin. "I couldn't get somebody that's merely excellent."
The Nightcats' 2012 One Wrong Turn continues to stretch the parameters of the band's sound, incorporating tastes of rock, surf, rockabilly and Memphis soul.
"It's still essentially a blues band like before, so there's a lot of commonality," says Estrin. "But with everyone in the band being 25 or 30 years younger than me their frame of reference is different."
Meanwhile, Estrin discovered that being a bandleader in name — as well as function — required more responsibilities. But it's all beginning to come together.
"I'm temperamentally better suited to be a dreamer and a clown, but I had to step up and start becoming somewhat of a nominal band leader," he says. "I'm lucky the guys don't require a lot of supervision. It's a real cooperative effort. It's my name on it, but it's an actual band — not just one guy and some sidemen."