Little Charlie and the Nightcats are alive and well
By Greg Cahill
The blues bug bit Charlie Baty at a tender age. At a time when most of his young friends were sidewalk-surfin' to the sound of Jan and Dean, the Birmingham, Ala.–born Baty was grooving to the tunes of such blues greats as Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Little Walter Jacobs. "I was playing blues guitar and harmonica back when the Beach Boys and the Beatles were happening," recalls Baty, 50, during a stopover at a Portland hotel. "By the time Led Zeppelin were climbing their 'Stairway to Heaven,' I was already a blues veteran--well, at least in my own mind," he adds with a laugh.
Today, Little Charlie and the Nightcats--guitarist Baty; harmonica player, vocalist and lyricist Rick Estrin; and a new rhythm section that features bassist Lorenzo Farrell and drummer J. Hansen--are ranked among the blues elite. Baty's sizzling guitar licks and Estrin's gritty harp and blue-collar lyrics have won such fans as Robert Cray, and this Sacramento-based band routinely draws rave reviews for delivering what the influential CMJ New Music Report once called "dizzying energy, mighty chops and a sly sense of humor."
In recent years, Little Charlie and the Nightcats have also attracted a cult following among swing kids lured by the band's infectious swing-time instrumentals and shuffle beats.
But retro blues is a double-edged artistic sword.
The encyclopedic All Music Guide recently faulted Little Charlie and the Nightcats for delivering more of the same on the newly released Nine Lives (Alligator), the band's first album in three years and their 10th for the Chicago label. "Time to put out the box set and move on to new territory," reviewer Steve Leggett quipped.
There's no question that Little Charlie and the Nightcats continue to speak lyrically from the perspective of the working-class slob shafted on his job and mired in a marital mess--all familiar themes in the band's oeuvre. But it's all delivered with a sly comedic bent and a simple "if you're cool, that's the rule" juke-joint ethic.
The result is a baker's dozen of blue-collar drinking songs and party tunes.
"We're trying to keep the tradition of the blues alive, but we want to update it, not by doing cover versions of classics, but by doing original material," says Baty, noting that Estrin honed his chops as a teenager playing at the Club Long Island, a rowdy Hunter's Point blues bar. "I don't know how far we'll be able to go playing the blues, but I don't think we've gone as far as we can go. We're still exploring different avenues."
Little Charlie and the Nightcats perform Friday, July 1, at the Mystic Theater. 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Mitch Woods and His Rocket 88's open. 8pm. $15. 707.765.2121.
Blues diva Angela Strehli returns to the American Rhythm and Roots Festival on July 3, a concert featured at the Marin County Fair, where Huey Lewis and the News make their much-anticipated return the night of Thursday, June 30. . . . Look for the Fabulous Thunderbirds at the Last Day Saloon in Santa Rosa on Thursday, July 14. The reformed band, led by singer and harmonic player Kim Wilson and featuring two hot new guitarists, have just released a new album, Painted On (Tone Cool). . . .Cuban-born blues guitar phenom Eddie "Devil Boy" Turner will open the Sonoma County Blues Festival on Saturday, Aug. 6, at the Sonoma County Fair. Headliners include Lydia Pense and Cold Blood, Cafe R&B, Earl Thomas and Nick Moss, and the Flip Tops.
From the June 29-July 5, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.