24th January 2019 – 100 Club, London.
Stepping out into the cold January night air from the Oxford Circus Underground subway, I started to follow the well-worn path trodden by millions before me through London’s premier shopping district along Oxford Street towards Tottenham Court Road.
The Christmas decorations, silvery globes and stars which swayed in the wind were no longer illuminated and were waiting to be removed. The shops that had been packed with Christmas shoppers and bright and creative displays just 4 weeks before now had their windows almost empty, showing huge Sale banners and discount offers.
The souvenir shops were still open, tempting the few remaining tourists as the evening turned to night. I was heading for the legendary 100 Club, the basement shrine to jazz, blues, and punk that still welcomes pilgrims to see the stage where Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and most visiting bluesmen since the 1950s have all performed.
The great British Blues and Rock kings from the Rolling Stones, The Who and The Pretty Things to Metallica and The Sex Pistols, they have all played there, and not forgetting the darlings of west London and Scandinavia, the Downliners Sect, still rockin’ after 50 years who recently returned there.
I vividly remember Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee playing the London School of Economics and the 100 Club on one of their last tours in 1975. They were backed on washboard by British jazz journalist John Pilgrim, the ex “Vipers” skiffle man who had also backed Big Bill Broonzy there nearly 20 years before that.
I finally arrived at the small door with the “100 Club” sign, easy to miss as it is squeezed between two storefronts, and I joined the already forming queue at the top of the stairs that leads down into the underground “Aladdin’s cave”. The decor is virtually unchanged since a red painted “spruce up” in the 1970’s and the walls are covered with photos of the great and good of Traditional Jazz, Blues, R & B and Brit-punk bands who have played there.
39 years ago, when Rick Estrin walked that same route it was to see John Peel, the famous Radio DJ introduce the legendary Delta Bluesman Son House. It was Rick’s first visit to the UK and with him in the audience was his new British friend and harmonica mentor, Paul Rowan.
Now in 2019, on the 24th January, Rick returned with his own show, and Paul was also there to share his nostalgic return (more of that later), along with British harp stars Paul Lamb and Laurie Garman, who were both there to listen to one of the great American blues harmonica men at work.
The audience was, as usual, a mixture of knowledgeable oldsters steeped in the blues, young enthusiasts, US Blues fans in town on vacation, and just a few curious tourists from around the world who managed to buy the cancelled or returned tickets on this sell-out night. They were all in for a treat.
Rick Estrin was born in San Francisco in 1949 and was immersed in the blues by the time he got his first harmonica at 15. His life story is documented elsewhere, and a good part of it you can learn if you see him from the great stories and anecdotes that he entertains his audiences with between the songs.
To summarise briefly, at 18 he was already jamming in the clubs with black artists like Lowell Fulson. He moved to Chicago in 1968 and worked with Muddy Waters, Eddie Taylor, and all the Chicago greats of the time, learning his songwriting and showman skills along the way from the likes of Fillmore Slim and Rodger Collins.
After his UK visit, he moved back to the Bay and formed The Nightcats with Charlie Baty on guitar, and when Charlie retired Rick took over and it became Rick Estrin & The Nightcats. They carried on the same direction of diverse and fun-filled nights of blues and developed it even further. Since forming in 2008 they have travelled the world over, touring year after year, bringing their unique and multi-award-winning brand of original songs. They perform in many styles, some as Jump blues, Delta blues, Chicago Blues or Electric Blues, but always damn good blues and damn good fun!
The current Nightcats’ most recent addition is Oslo born Robert Alexander “Alex” Petterson, who by the age of 16 was already an accomplished blues drummer in Norway. And despite a 3-year age gap he became a friend of Kid Andersen and joined him in the house band at Oslo’s premier blues venue, the Muddy Waters Club.
He also toured with many of the American bands visiting Norway including Junior Watson and Louisiana Red, and all the top Norwegian Roots and Blues acts. He won two Norwegian Grammy awards, and in 2016 he finally moved to the USA. He met up again with Kid who had already moved eight years earlier, and joined him in the Nightcats, fitting in seamlessly. His infectious, tight, and rock-hard rhythm and beat are the driving force, propelling the band unswervingly through its most complex variations.
Chris “Kid” Andersen is another Norwegian native from Telemark who, like Alex backed many visiting American bluesmen, including Homesick James and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. He started as a young boy by listening to all the Chicago Blues greats, and moved to California and soon earned his “green card” residency at 21.
He recorded 4 solo albums, and then joined Harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite’s band in 2004. In 2008 he joined Rick Estrin and the Nightcats and is now in his 11th year with them. He is a master of every style and an effortless soloist and is given free rein occasionally to improvise around themes and dazzle us with his skill, and then returns to authentic classic period blues styles whenever the song demands it.
Lorenzo Farrell is the longest serving of the Nightcats, he was born and raised in Kentucky and Indiana and learned piano from the age of 6. After studying philosophy and religion at Berkeley and Delhi (India) he returned to the San Francisco area and has worked ever since as a multi-instrumentalist, expert at piano, organ and double bass in the worlds of both jazz and blues, playing and recording with numerous artists including Elvin Bishop, Wee Willie Walker and Andy Santana.
He joined Rick Estrin’s Nightcats in 2003 and nowadays plays a superb piano or organ sound keyboard with his right hand and rocks with a left-hand bass line throughout the set and that eliminates the need for a bass guitarist (though you will look for one at first, the sound is so good!). In doing so he is following in the illustrious footsteps of Ray Manzarek of the Doors, albeit with a more digital solution of a separate small keyboard with a bass emulator built in at the end of the conventional keyboard layout.
The gig itself followed the tried and tested formula that we have all come to expect, a fantastic night of good blues and good solos with amusing stories linking them altogether from master showman Rick Estrin. He was dressed as sharp as ever, dark grey mohair jacket with a subtle glittering weave over silvery silk drape trousers, and alligator patent pointed shoes.
In London, in the 50’s we called them “Winkle Pickers”, (winkles being small shellfish that Cockneys would buy at the seaside and remove the meat from the shell by using a small pointed stick or pin). The shoes were a favourite fashion that Sonny Boy Williamson adopted on his visits to England in the 1960’s.
Unlike the bowler hat and umbrella he also acquired, he must have taken them back to the USA in 1965 as there is a recording of “Sunshine” Sonny Payne on the “King Biscuit Time” Radio Show on KFFA in Helena Arkansas welcoming him home and introducing him as “Sonny Boy Williamson, the man with the pointy toe shoes!”.
But I digress, back to the gig. Topped off with his trademark pompadour hair, cool shades and jazzy tie, Rick launched off into a great instrumental to start with, a 1950’s style jump blues, and warmed up his chops with some exquisite harmonica paying across the whole range of techniques as our feet started to tap and the audience started to smile, both of which we would repeat many times throughout the evening.
Then followed a set of original songs, most written by Rick or by other band members with Rick, and all sounding like real deep old-time blues of different sub-genres. Rick’s light and jazzy voice dances through the numbers like a knowing and slightly naughty friend, smiling and winking at us one minute, full of concern and emotion the next.
He celebrates with us the blues life, the agonies of youth and the weariness of age effortlessly moving from one to another but always in intimate communication with his audience.
“I was Looking For A Woman (when I met you)” from the recent “Groovin’ In Greaseland” album produced by Kid Andersen kicked off with a great harp solo, and was followed by old and new songs which all had one thing in common…they’re all good blues!
As ever, Rick told us stories of his childhood, his early days and his experiences of the blues greats and his funny band anecdotes from over 30 years of playing and touring. These stories provide links to the fan’s favourites like “That’s Big!” (the story of love for a “larger lady” is censored so cannot be repeated here!) which can be found on their 2014 “You Asked For It – Live!” album (a good CD to start a new Rick Estrin collection with!).
Another favourite that is never left out is the joyous audience participation song “Dump That Chump!” which is on the same CD and “Calling All Fools” from the “Twisted” 2012 album, the band’s first on Alligator Records.
Highlights of course also included Rick’s accomplished solos in nearly all the songs, including a chord filled high power outing for his Chromatic harp in his “MTV Acoustic” style instrumental.
Kid Andersen played some incredible solos throughout but excelled himself on his own tribute to Lonnie Mack. He gave us the full “behind the head” playing, teeth picking and leg kicking gymnastics, as well as some truly inspired jazzy and heavy melody lines. He somehow wove Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” (Oh, all right, the Lone Ranger TV theme tune!) and John Barrie’s “James Bond theme” into a mix of supercharged “blues on steroids”.
Lorenzo Farrell also gave us a solo spot (giving Rick his second break to draw breath) with some excellent jazz blues Hammond style organ morphing from Soul into synth rock and back again with some breath-taking technique before settling back to his bass line for a short but beautifully constructed drum solo from Alex Pettersen as he stretched out and paraded his intricate and complex rhythm work, then returned along with Lorenzo to rock and roll the joint with the relentless high energy beat that drove the whole night along.
The final scheduled song was “You Can’t Come Back”, but we hope Rick will return many more times. As time was getting tight and we were in fear of the lights being put out, Rick got his old British blues buddy and mentor from those London 100 club 60’s days Paul Rowan up on-stage for an emotion-filled duet.
The cheers from an ecstatic audience brought Rick back onstage alone for the very last encore of the night. Instead of his usual “Too Close Together” vamp he produced a low tuned 12-hole harp just like the one Sonny Boy Willamson used for his UK encores in the 60’s and gave us a similarly beautiful soulful unaccompanied solo on “You Let Me Down”.
I could be wrong on this song, as the lyrics were unfamiliar to me, but whatever the title, it was in the style of Williamson’s “Bye Bye Bird” that closed so many of his shows, and set spines tingling and neck hair raising on all us old bluesmen in the audience. A fitting end to a historic “homecoming” night at the 100 Club.
As we rushed to catch late trains and returned down a now quieter (but never empty) Oxford Street, we reflected on a great night that I hope will be repeated and that Rick Estrin won’t wait another 39 years before he returns to the 100 Club.
My thanks to Rick, Lorenzo and Laurie Garman who I had a few brief words with after the gig, enough to find out that I am the same age as Rick and we both saw Son House in London! Also, to the band website, Wikipedia and band members websites and Facebook pages and CD cover notes for invaluable biographical and song information.
Thanks to the sadly now departed “Sunshine “Sonny Payne, KFFA and the extra tracks on the Sonny Boy Williamson King Biscuit Time CD and not forgetting my old schoolfriend Sandy Loewenthal (also known as Calypso King “Alexander D. Great”) for his piano and keyboard knowledge and expertise. And special thanks to Jennifer Noble for her always superb photographs of the gig.
Gig Review by John Habes, London
Photography by Jennifer Noble
For More Info – Rick Estrin & The Nightcats