13 songs – 55 minutes
The release of a new album by Rick Estrin & The Nightcats is always cause for celebration. What is there to say about this group of rapscallians that hasn’t already been said? One of the most widely-respected blues bands in the world, with A-list musicians, whip-smart songs and a live show that is as entertaining as it is technically impressive. Over its eight-year lifespan, the band has built on the more than solid foundations laid by Little Charlie when he led The Nightcats, releasing three essential albums (all on Alligator Records) and firmly embedding itself in the premier division of blues bands.
And the good news is that they have a new studio album out, Groovin’ In Greaseland. Even better news is that it maintains the gold standard of previous releases, with 13 songs (10 from the pen of Estrin, one co-written by Estrin with guitarist Kid Andersen, one from Andersen himself and one from keyboardist Lorenzo Farrell) packed into just under an hour of serious fun.
The sound of the band has evolved from its earlier incarnations, with less West Coast swing and more Chicago grit and funk to the fore. The album contains a choice variety of blues grooves, however, from the aching minor key ballad of “Tender Hearted” (with a beautiful solo from Andersen) and the upbeat early rock’n’roll of “Dissed Again”, to the funky blues of “Big Money” and the high-heeled bounce of “Hand Of Time.” Estrin continues to write sharp, intelligent lyrics that alternate between the off-the-wall humour of “I Ain’t All That” or “Dissed Again” (“I drive across the country in a beat-up [dodgy] van, tryin’ to make a living, got to pay the band. Get back just in time to hear the boss man say, you got to open for a 10 year old, sounds just like Stevie Ray”) and the hard-hitting social commentary of “Living Hand To Mouth”. On “Big Money”, he actually combines the two.
What separates Estrin’s songs from those of many other writers is the precision of language combined with his natural story-telling ability. Each character in an Estrin song inhabits its own carefully constructed world, and the Nightcats feed into that world. So, the protagonist of “Looking For A Woman” may have just been dumped by his love, but he knows “I’ll be back in circulation just as soon as you’re gone.” His delirious optimism is perfectly reflected in Andersen’s joyous guitar solo.
The solos are shared pretty evenly across the album between Estrin’s harp, Andersen’s guitar and Farrell’s keys with all three players often taking a solo in the same song. There are three instrumentals, however, each of which allows each player room to stretch out a little. “Cool Slaw” is a 60s-style toe-tapper that showcases Farrell’s glorious organ playing. The dreamy, closing harmonica workout of “So Long (for Jay P.)” ably demonstrates Estrin’s harp prowess. And the madcap Lonnie Mack tribute of “MWAH!” lets Andersen throw in nods to a number of Mack classics (including “Wham!”, “The Bounce” and “Chicken Pickin’”), all while capturing Lonnie’s signature Flying V-plus-tremolo-bar sound to a tee.
The core band comprises long-standing members Estrin on vocals and harp, Andersen on guitars and Farrell on organ, piano and Wurlitzer, together with new (since 2016) boy Alex Pattersen on drums. Additional musicians include Jerry Jermot, Joe Kyle Jr and Robby Yamilov on bass, Nancy Wright, Terry Hanck and John Halbeib on horns, Martin Windstad on percussion; and Jim Pugh on electric piano.
With sparkling production by Estrin and Andersen (the album was recorded at Andersen’s infamous Greaseland studio), Groovin’ In Greaseland is smart and self-assured without ever being arrogant or cocksure.
If you’re already a fan of Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, Groovin’ In Greaseland is an essential purchase. If you’re not yet a fan, you really should be, and this album is a fine place to start.