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Rick Estrin and the Nightcats - Twisted (2009)

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Rick Estrin and the Nightcats' Twisted

Rick Estrin and the Nightcats' Twisted

Photo courtesy Alligator Records

For nearly three decades, in his role as frontman for Little Charlie and the Nightcats, singer, songwriter, and harp player Rick Estrin became so indentified with the band that many folks thought that he was the "Little Charlie" at the top of the marquee. When guitarist Charlie Baty retired from touring in 2007, he left the band in co-founder Estrin's capable hands.

Now leading the talented Nighcats rhythm section of bassist Lorenzo Farrell and drummer J. Hansen, Estrin found the next big thing in blues guitar in the form of Norwegian fretburner Chris "Kid" Andersen. Twisted is the first album from the re-jiggered line-up of Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, a solid effort that manages to take the veteran band in some new and encouraging musical directions while not straying far from, or sacrificing the band's native West Coast blues sound.

Rick Estrin and the Nightcats' Twisted

Twisted leaps off your turntable and begins jumpin'-n-jivin' across your consciousness from the very first notes of the swaggering "Big Time." Estrin's vocals bop above an insistent rhythm for the first verse or so before the song kicks into overdrive with his blazing harpwork and Kid Andersen's white-hot fretwork. Estrin's vocals are unusual for a bluesman, kind of a cross between Elvis Costello and Commander Cody, with strains of Tom Waits and Randy Newman floating by...kind of a witch's brew of Memphis soul, Chicago blues, Britpop, and New Orleans R&B.

But I digress..."Back From The Dead" just came roaring through the speakers, the spry rockin' tune featuring a slight jump-blues rhythm, some engaging piano hidden deep in the mix, and Estrin's impressive vocal gymnastics complimented by Andersen's scorching solos and fine rhythm work. The staccato swamp-blues groove of "Walk All Day" belies the song's lusty nature, Estrin's come-hither vocals matched by muscular fretwork and a languid rhythmic groove that twists and turns like cypress root.

Foot-Flailing Rhythms & Trembling Guitars

The high-spirited, Andersen-penned "Earthquake" is an energetic instrumental with its roots deep in the surf-rock 1960s, shades of Dick Dale and the Ventures mixed with bluesy overtones, a rockabilly heart, and enough trembling guitar and blasts of icy harp to put the listener in the I.C.U. for a month. The equally-raucous "P.A. Slim Is Back" is a lively jump-blues romp with uber-cool throwback production, Estrin's swinging vocals, incredible harmonica tone, and a foot-flailing rhythm that means we'll have fun, fun, fun until daddy takes our stereo away!

Drummer J. Hansen takes the spotlight and vocals for his original and funny-as-hell "I'm Takin' Out My In-Laws." With manic be-bop rhythm, shots of Estrin's underrated harp punching away in the mix, shards of stinging guitarwork, and Hansen's booming vocals, he tells his tale of woe. The jazzbo instrumental "Cool Breeze" is a slower-paced, but not inconsiderate bit of blues legerdemain, Estrin's harp drawing a chilly line in the sand as the band lays down a shuffling beat behind Andersen's blues-infused, jazz-flavored licks; bassist Farrell slaps out a wicked bass solo to anchor the entire endeavor in reality. Andersen's wonderfully wry "Bigfoot" instrumental stakes out Carl Perkins' territory again, with his fiery six-string picking ringing clear above the song's Saturday night juke-joint rhythms.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Longtime Little Charlie and the Nightcats fans need not fear that new bandleader and founding member Rick Estrin has given away the farm with Twisted. Sure, Estrin has tweaked a few things here and there, turned a few knobs, and adjusted the volume, but Twisted still features his inspired vocals and witty, street-smart wordplay.

Farrell and Hansen are one of the most underrated rhythm sections in blues music today, and while the recruitment of Chris "Kid" Andersen, who has played with Charlie Musselwhite and John Nemeth, is an upgrade at the position, it is also a major coup as the Kid is one of the hottest rising stars in the blues. In short, if you loved Little Charlie and the Nightcats' albums like Shadow of the Blues or Disturbing the Peace, you won't go wrong with Twisted. (Alligator Records, released June 2, 2009)

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