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June 28, 2014
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Durable blues group to play Music on the Half Shell

Steadily excellent. Consistent as a machine. Durable.

“We’re like the San Antonio Spurs of blues,” Rick Estrin says of his band.

The frontman could have added, the champion San Antonio Spurs. The modern blues band Rick Estrin and the Nightcats — the act formerly known as Little Charlie and the Nightcats — plays Music on the Half Shell next week, the second show of the Half Shell’s 23rd season.

Be sure, a big part of this act is its look. Drummer J. Hansen plays standing up. Guitarist Kid Andersen mugs big while playing. And Estrin will almost definitely hit the stage with his signature pencil mustache, gelled hair and slick suit.

“It’s changed a little bit,” Estrin said by phone this month. “There’s a picture of me playing at 13. I didn’t have a mustache, but I looked pretty much the same.”

The singers Estrin grew up idolizing dressed clean and sharp. They treated performing for a crowd like it was their job, because it was, he said.

“The audience wants to see something as well hear something.”

In 1976, University of California-Berkeley student and guitarist Charles Baty formed Little Charlie and the Nightcats. The name was a nod to the first band of one of Baty’s idols — Little Walter and the Nightcats. Estrin signed on to play harp several months later, and quickly worked his way to the front of the band.

Though Baty stepped away in 2008, and there have been numerous other lineup changes, the band that hits the Nichols Bandshell next week is a proven unit, Estrin said.

With Norwegian Chris “Kid” Andersen replacing Baty on guitar, it’s now more collaborative and diverse, Estrin said.

“The band has morphed into something entirely different than what it was,” he said. “In a lot of ways, this is the best version of the band we’ve ever had.”

Andersen previously played with Charlie Musselwhite, including at Musselwhite’s 2006 Half Shell performance. He’s a natural fit in the Nightcats, and a supernatural talent, Estrin said.

“He’s a nut; he plays his (expletive) off.”

With Baty no longer in the group, a name-change was a logical idea. For most of the band’s history, people called Estrin “Charlie” anyway because of his role up front.

“I’d say 60 percent of people thought I was Charlie,” he said.

Estrin doesn’t think if he grew up today he’d be as interested in the blues. But when he did grow up, in San Francisco, he was quite into it. He hung around clubs like Blue Monday, which had jam sessions frequented by greats like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Jimmie Wells.

“Everybody,” he said.

He moved to Chicago at 19 without a firm plan, got kicked out by his girlfriend and eagerly played with anyone he could. He barely missed the chance to play with his idol, Muddy Waters. He did receive some complimentary words, though.

“I was just levitating after that,” he said.

Estrin, 64 and now of Sacramento, said he tries to put his own personality into a well-worn genre, and not crib from the greats.

“It has to be genuine or people aren’t going to be into it.”

Blues music is now a considerable U.S. cultural export, with audiences flocking to Nightcats shows in Europe and Asia.

But crowds abroad are more staid than American audiences, Estrin said.

“It’s not as interactive,” he said. “They’re more reverent. They really look up to the great bluesmen.”

He once met a man in Greece with a Rick Estrin tattoo.

“Luckily, he did have a good tattoo artist.”

• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at gandrews@nrtoday.com.

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The News-Review Updated Jun 28, 2014 01:18AM Published Jul 2, 2014 09:25AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.