Rick Estrin & The Nightcats – Contemporary
Alligator Records ALCD 4996
12 songs – 51 minutes
Anyone who’s ever spent time listening to Rick Estrin and his band of melodious merrymakers since their debut in 1987 knows they’ve always delivered tunes that reflect modern ideas and sentiments with a great deal of insight and humor. But he and The Nightcats put it in overdrive for this release, their 15th title in the Alligator catalog.
Even though they’ve been there all along, it’s a tongue-in-cheek effort to break through the glass ceiling into the world of mainstream music, and it works on all counts as the band seamlessly stretches its comfort zone to include new, no-holds-barred numbers that incorporate elements that are more familiar in hip-hop and other art forms.
Fear not, though. Contemporary is cutting-edge blues through and through, a template that works perfectly as it stretches sounds formulated a century ago in Mississippi and creates a blueprint that will appeal to music lovers in all genres in future generations.
The core lineup of The Nightcats – Estrin on vocals and harp backed by multi-instrumentalist/producer Kid Andersen and keyboard player Lorenzo Farrell – remains intact since the band reformed after the retirement in 2008 of guitarist and former headliner Little Charley Baty. Amping things up on this one is the addition of Derreck “D-Mar” Martin on percussion. A music educator of note, his background includes 17 years with Little Richard and work with a who’s who of blues and soul artists, including Bobby Rush, Carla Thomas, Syl Johnson, Dorothy Moore and dozens more.
Recorded at Andersen’s award-winning Greaseland Studios in California, the mix also includes former Nightcat Alex Pettersen on drums and Quantae Johnson on bass for seven cuts and guest appearances by Jim Pugh on organ and backing vocals provided by Lisa Leuschner Andersen and James, Walter and Dwayne Morgan, the gospel trio who record as The Sons of the Soul Revivers.
One of the most inventive lyricists of the modern era, Estrin opens the action with “I’m Running,” an unsettling description of being chased by Father Time and having “no time for looking back.” His intense mid-tune solo is interspersed with the ticking and chiming of clocks and the call of the cuckoo. Andersen’s guitar is featured on the soulful “Resentment File,” Rick’s advice for men to treat their women better.
The title tune, “Contemporary,” is up next. After obsessing on claims that “the blues is goin’ nowhere,” he comes to the conclusion that it’s time to change his sound. After a light, breezy and bluesy opening verse, the band erupts atop a deeply funky beat and progresses through multiple formats, including a stellar rap delivered by D-Mar. By the finale, Estrin assures listeners he’s got the “key to guarantee triple-platinum success” and plans to kick everything off with a farewell tour.
Fear not, though, The Nightcats return to their root with “She Nuts Up,” Rick’s hipster description of his lady, who occasionally goes off the rails because of some unexplained past horror. It’s delivered in the same easy-greasy manner fans have come to know and love. Folks will rush to the dance floor for “New Shape (Remembering Junior Parker),” which is propelled by a heavy bass beat and professes love for a woman who’s gone from rail thin to heavier and extra-fine.
The pleasing stop-time instrumental “House of Grease,” and anthem to Kid’s recording studio, features Andersen trading guitar licks with Farrell on keys and stellar work on the kit from D-Mar before Rick wonders if money is the “’Root of All Evil,’ what’s it called bein’ broke?”
The slow blues, “The Main Event,” finds Estrin on chromatic and reflecting on his inevitable demise, surrounded by friends as his body’s been lowered into its grave, before the mood brightens for “Cupcakin’,” a jazzy instrumental penned by Lorenzo on which the entire band has space to shine.
“New Year’s Eve,” which looks forward to turning the page on 2019 and flipping the calendar, precedes a cover of Detroit bluesman Bobo Jenkins’ 1959 hit, “Nothing but Love,” before “Bo Dee’s Bounce,” another pleasing instrumental, closes the set.
Rick Estrin gets more space to show off his prodigious harp skills here than most previous albums, and The Nightcats are at the absolute top of their game on throughout. Available wherever fine CDs are sold — and definitely a strong contender when next awards season rolls around. Pick it up. You won’t be disappointed.