Little Charlie and the Nightcats

Alligator AL 4776

I avoided listening to this record for a long time. Call it reverse prejudice or whatever, but I’d had it up to here with white-boy blues bands and their lead singers named “Little This” or “Something Slim” posing in pseudoghetto garb–porkpie hats, secondhand leisure suits, 50s-style bucks, shades, and hipper-than-thou sneers. They always seemed to sputter frenetic imitations of late-era Buddy Guy guitar histrionics over rock-laden percussion crashes, raving wild-eyed in voices that strained for soul but more often sounded like hungover college kids gargling razor blades. This LPs cover, featuring Little Charlie and the Nightcats in hokey striped jailbird outfits, ball and chain in hand along with a few musical instruments, fit the pattern so well that I was sure the music would be more of the same.

Sometimes it’s nice to be proved wrong. This LP won’t win any awards for pathfinding blues vision or revolutionary musicianship, but it’s one of the most savory I’ve come across in a long time. It crackles with fresh, irreverent humor, and it’s mined with enough influences and obscure references to keep musicologists hitting the books for weeks. Moreover there’s a tastefulness to both the playing and singing that’s almost unheard-of in musicians this young.

Guitarist Little Charlie Baty and his boys are another in the growing legion of Alligator Records’ Cinderella stories. The band had been gigging around the west coast for some years when, in the summer of 1986, they sent an unsolicited audition tape to the Alligator folks. They liked what they heard, and in 1987 the first Little Charlie and the Nightcats LP, All the Way Crazy, was released. Since then the band has been touring almost nonstop, taking occasional time out to revisit the Alligator studios and record. This LP is their third.

From the first cut, the title cut, the humor is irresistible. “The Big Break” is a novelty number in a chugging R & B groove augmented by a boogie-shuffle break. (The pun on “break” is intentional; the Nightcats’ song titles and lyrics are peppered with musical in-jokes.) The overall effect is unmistakably that of the great 50s and early 60s-era gag songs by tongue-in-cheek R & B groups like the Coasters (“Along Came Jones”) and the Hollywood Argyles (“Alley Oop”). Vocalist Rick Estrin contributes a larynx-popping baritone that heightens the funky absurdity. The tone has been established: this is a good-time set, made for partying, but there’s none of the screaming macho that all too often passes for fun on today’s mainstream blues-rock scene. The great R & B party masters always managed to allow some genuine wit to inform their raucousness; the Nightcats have that nearly forgotten art down to a science.

It doesn’t take long for the band’s love of the entire blues-R & B tradition to make itself felt. From the loping jive of “The Big Break,” they plunge into “Don’t Do It” with a driving beat that sounds like a revved-up variation on Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu.” Perhaps the medical reference is intentional; in “Don’t Do It,” a hard-living bon vivant recites the seemingly endless list of orders he’s just received from a doctor who’s warned him to straighten out his life-style before it’s too late.

Estrin delivers his litany of maladies and commonsense remedies in a series of hilariously upbeat images; this physician sounds like the same hip sawbones who prescribed “Good Lovin'” to the Olympics in the mid-60s. The vocal style is a bluesy variation on John Sebastian’s approach–exemplified in “Jug Band Music”–in his Lovin’ Spoonful days. There’s that same mischievous combination of laid-back spaciness and underlying rock ‘n’ roll urgency–goosed with a couple gallons of high-octane boogie bass. Abstinence and healthy eating have never sounded like so much fun. The new surgeon general should buy the rights to this one and issue it as his first venture in health education.

For all their irreverence, however, Little Charlie and the Nightcats are obviously well schooled. They’re not afraid to blend apparently disparate styles in ways that couldn’t be pulled off by players who didn’t know exactly what they were doing. “I Beg Your Pardon” is based primarily on the breezy blues style that developed in Texas and on the west coast after the war (T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson, et al), but Little Charlie embellishes it with a bit of Buddy Guy-style Chicago fierceness in the midst of the sweet California chording.

“Dump That Chump” features Estrin’s straight-ahead mid-50s Little Walter harmonica sound, pushed along by percussionist Dobie Strange (love that name), who employs a backbeat lifted directly from Fred Below, Walter’s longtime drummer in Chicago. Out in front, however, Estrin’s vocal has the lightness of western swing.

If there’s a weakness to this LP, it’s that Estrin’s voice becomes a bit mannered when he departs from his beloved R & B novelty songs. He doesn’t quite have the pipes to put across either hardcore traditional blues or jazzy R & B, as he occasionally attempts to do. But the band is having so much fun that you don’t really notice. “Kansas City Woman” showcases Little Charlie’s guitar in a Chet Atkins/Merle Travis mode, with Strange swinging lightly on the brushes. The intensity picks up a bit on the bridge but never gets out of control.

“Hurry Up and Wait” is a straightforward tribute to harmonica great Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson Number Two). As a tribute it makes its point well, although this is one song where Estrin’s voice simply can’t do the material justice; Miller’s was one of the most complex and nuanced voices in blues. The harp solo is basically a lovingly assembled pastiche of Miller’s riffs, the lyrics reflect the quirky fatalism that made Miller one of the most distinctive of the great blues poets, and Little Charlie’s accompaniment has Muddy Waters’s work on Miller’s 1955 Chess recording “Good Evening Everybody” down almost note for note.

Side two continues in the same vein, but some of the influences here are a bit closer to the blues roots. “That’s O.K.” is another Little Walter/Fred Below kind of number. The beat is tight and intricate (the obvious point of reference is Little Walter’s “Mellow Down Easy”), and it eventually cuts into a driving shuffle made distinctive by Strange’s trick of accenting the upbeat.

The band charges through a couple more standard modern-day jams: the appropriately titled “Jump Start,” a jump blues that’s primarily a Little Charlie tour de force on guitar but is nicely seasoned by Jimmy Pugh’s honky-tonk piano tinkling, and “Some Nerve,” a rather standard 80s-style high-energy blues. Then comes an unexpected delight. “Lottery” reaches further back in the blues tradition than any other number in this set. The intro seems to be based on John Lee (Sonny Boy Number One) Williamson’s 1938 “Until My Love Come Down.” It remains in a Sonny Boy groove most of the way through, Estrin’s harp conveying some of the subtle rhythmic and harmonic textures that made Williamson a seminal figure.

Although obviously these musicians don’t spring from the tradition that sired the music of Williamson and his followers, in “Lottery” they succeed in what could easily have been an embarrassing exercise in posturing. The reason: the classy musical understatement that permeates this disc. Toward the end of “Lottery,” Estrin’s harp loosens into some full-toned, sustained swoops that give a taste of how blues harmonica evolved from Williamson through the elaborations and advances of his two most important successors, Little Walter Jacobs and Big Walter Horton.

The record closes with a fuel-injected rock ‘n’ roller, “Me and Miss Ann.” It sounds as if it had been composed and recorded in a Chevy convertible, at 70 mph with the radio blasting–an appropriately exhilarating conclusion to a delightful record. In a world where one sometimes seems forced to choose between rehashing classic cliches and trashing tradition through self-conscious iconoclasm, the combined irreverence and dedication of Little Charlie and the Nightcats is a pleasant surprise.