From the opening notes, a stuttering harmonica lick played with thick, luscious overtones to the end of the record, a wild nearly seven-minute instrumental that conjures up cinematic imagery and a whole lot of open space, One Wrong Turn is full of surprises. This is the second album by Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, and it’s possibly the best thing the man has ever done.
Rick Estrin spent 30 years as the frontman of a band without his name on it. He played harp, sang, and wrote the songs for Little Charlie and the Nightcats, a San Francisco-based blues band that made the leap over the years from playing tiny bars to touring the world as headliners and recording artists for Alligator Records. Little Charlie Baty had started the band with Estrin in 1976, and he decided in 2008 that he wanted to go into semi-retirement.
Rick Estrin and the Nightcats' One Wrong Turn
Without missing a beat, Estrin and the most recent rhythm section members, bassist Lorenzo Farrell, and drummer J. Hansen recruited Norwegian guitarist Kid Andersen, and the Nightcats continued. This time, the flamboyant stage presence of the group’s leader was clearly acknowledged. Rick Estrin and the Nightcats would be the name on marquees from now on.
The first record with the new line-up, Twisted, showed that the new line-up was capable of playing the same brand of hard-swinging, supple blues that Little Charlie had trademarked, albeit with a few subtle hints that things might change. One Wrong Turn won’t do anything to scare off long-time fans, but it pumps up the overdrive on the amps, and rocks harder than the Nightcats have done in the past. Seriously, don’t be scared. The songs are still witty, sharp, and incisive, and the solos are well-structured, compact, and melodic.
Three Cool Cats
Estrin has long been acknowledged as one of the smartest songwriters in contemporary blues, and he comes up with several gems here to prove it. “Lucky You,” built on a primal powerhouse drum beat, some stinging bent single notes on guitar, and a particularly nasty harp riff, is at first glance a familiar litany of blues misery. Estrin tells how hard it is to get anywhere in this world, in contrast to a much luckier individual who takes “vacations in places I can’t even spell.” Look a little bit closer, however, and you’ll realize this isn’t just one guy down on his luck, it’s an indictment of a whole system. “Out here starvin’ to death while you’re gettin’ fat /and you could do somethin’ ‘bout it but you like it like that.” Estrin could have sent this one to those in charge of that Occupy This Album compilation.
The title track takes some more pot shots at the 1% in the course of describing the ways life can turn on a dime. The music is similar to the song “Three Cool Cats,” originally done by the Coasters and famously covered by the Beatles as part of their first demo audition. Estrin’s first verse tells of a young girl who had all the advantages but turned out bad, anyway, and the second warns the rich that “one wrong turn – that’s all she wrote.”
Ah, but politics is not the primary interest of Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, who mostly just want to fill up the dance floor and have a good time. “Desperation Perspiration” is a fine example, a funky little insinuating groove that isn’t far removed from that of War’s “Low Rider.” Here, Estrin snaps out a series of hilarious insults aimed at a guy who just stands no chance with the ladies. Seriously, is there anything funnier than these lines? “Down at the club, you ain’t got a chance/when the groove is funk/you’re tryin’ to do the riverdance.” Or try album opener “D.O.G.” Andersen, Farrell, and Hansen are all slinky and seductive, but Estrin is shooting down the man who can’t stop chasing women and warning him against trying it with his wife. “Just be careful when you make your midnight creep/I catch you in my yard I’ll put your ass to sleep.”
The song that will undoubtedly get the most attention, deservedly so, is “(I Met Her On The) Blues Cruise.” It’s a rockin’ blues just a duckwalk away from Chuck Berry territory, and Estrin, in that pinched vocal that is his trademark (our own Rev. Keith Gordon described it as a cross between Elvis Costello and Commander Cody, and there’s no way to get closer), tells the tale of a woman he picked up after several Long Island Iced Teas on the high seas. There are name droppers, and there are those who get tattoos of former lovers, all of whom happen to be Estrin’s fellow blues musicians. The whole song could be quoted, but it would be absolutely wrong to spoil the laughs which should come the first time you hear this one.
There are some wonderful slower, misery-laden blues here, like “Callin’ All Fools,” “Broke and Lonesome,” and especially the irresistible “Movin’ Slow.” Estrin demonstrates his absolute mastery of the harmonica in “Old News,” in which he plays chords and lead lines and sings all so close together you’d swear it was three people. Farrell contributes “Zonin’,” a jaunty instrumental from his jazz background, featuring a stunning sax solo from Terry Hanck. Hansen wrote and sings “You Ain’t The Boss Of Me,” a somewhat desperate defense against a controlling woman. And Andersen wrote the instrumental that closes the record, “The Legend Of Taco Cobbler,” which sounds like the union of Ennio Morricone, Dick Dale, and Brave Combo. It may not exactly be blues, but it’s definitely fantastic.
Steve's Bottom Line
Along the way, Estrin and Andersen play many outstanding solos, and the band nails every single style the songs deserve. Rick Estrin and the Night Cats are not taking any wrong turns this time. One Wrong Turn is the kind of record that nabs you the first time you hear it, and simply sounds better and better over time. (Alligator Records, released July 3, 2012)
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