It’s always interesting to see how musicians who’ve been successful on record come off live. The transition between bandstand and studio can be tricky, and some of our most important blues artists have had trouble with it. In some cases–Howlin’ Wolf comes to mind–an artist’s stage presence has an excitement or intensity that can’t be reproduced mechanically; you’ve got to experience the full force of the personality to appreciate the music. On the other hand, musicians whose abilities might falter in the heat of performance can benefit from the in-studio opportunity to work things out over several takes. Arthur “Big Boy” Spires, Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers, and the late Good Rockin’ Charles all fall into this latter group.
Last Friday at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, Little Charlie and the Nightcats demonstrated that the promise they’ve shown on record is well on its way to being realized. They’re another of those Alligator Records success stories that began with a young musician’s dream and culminated in a major recording contract. Since 1986, when they sent the company an unsolicited demo tape and scored a recording session, they’ve become widely admired as purveyors of slickly arranged blues and R & B fun. Especially notable is their ability to recall the great R & B and pop novelty acts of the 1950s and early ’60s–the Coasters, Boogaloo and His Gallant Crew, the Hollywood Argyles–whose larynx-popping, eye-rolling characterizations of teenage urban hipsters updated the zoot-suited panache of Cab Calloway’s generation and paved the way for the stylistic revolutions of rock and roll.
Any time a band does one thing particularly well, there’s a danger that it’ll be pigeonholed for life. Little Charlie and the Nightcats seem determined to avoid this. They make it plain, in live performance, that there’s serious musical commitment beneath the good-timey surface. Guitarist Charlie Baty and his crew–harpist and vocalist Rick Estrin, new bassist Brad Lee Sexton, and drummer Dobie Strange–have forged a sound based on the breezy sophistication of postwar Texas blues and western swing. It’s given an added urgency by Estrin’s Chicago-style harp blowing and a complex rhythmic interplay between guitar, bass, and drums that elevates the concept of a rhythm section to an entirely new dimension. This band approaches rhythm work the same way a master jazz pianist like Earl “Fatha” Hines would use his left hand in a solo: to provide both propulsion and melodic elaboration on the ideas being developed in the treble registers.
Atop this churning mix of influences Estrin spiels, croons, and occasionally shouts in a voice that’s much more subtle and nuanced than it sounds on record. The band’s original lyrics are witty and unpredictable, and the material they cover is from off the beaten track; no war-horses like “Sweet Home Chicago” or “Got My Mojo Working” here.
That’s not to say that they don’t have a winning way with standards; at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, they galvanized the crowd with an unexpected but delightful romp on the jazz classic “Lester Leaps In,” featuring Baty’s crowd- pleasing guitar tricks (repeated riffs, fancy high-treble chords) interspersed with some truly awesome displays of technique and imagination. Strange and Sexton drove the number along in a rollicking shuffle-swing.
That set the tone for the night: party exuberance in a context of superb musicianship. Baty sometimes sounds as if he’s growing musically right in front of your ears. He’ll put forth an idea in his initial solo statement, then expand and elaborate upon it, sometimes punctuating it with wide-fingered chords that sound like aural exclamation points. His pinnacle at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera was a remarkable extended solo during the first set: fusing the sophisticated latter-day country swing of Chet Atkins with the amplified punch used by postwar Memphis blues guitarists, he built a magnificent structure of fleet sweeping leads, sly references to Albert King’s trademark rapid three-note descents, furious staccato bursts ringing with crystal-shattering clarity, and a howling finale of clanging metallic chords that culminated in a furious blast of energy, hovering near chaos then finally dancing back to earth with a series of sparkling harmonics. It had an effect I’ve rarely seen on a music audience: after their initial burst of applause, they buzzed excitedly for several minutes, like a theater crowd that’s just seen a spectacular play.
That knack of pulling things back together after flirting with anarchy is a key to the band’s effectiveness. A solo that might otherwise dissolve into dissonance will segue into a well-rehearsed coda, often a syncopated combo of guitar, bass, and drums, that provides a context for everything that’s gone before. Experienced jazz musicians often say that one of the most challenging things about jamming is working out appropriate endings; this band has taken the time to do that, and the result is a rare feeling of logic and coherence that underlies even their most lighthearted or raucous creations.
It becomes apparent, after a while, that Charlie and the Nightcats owe much of their success to the synergistic sureness of Sexton and Strange. As if to drive the point home, the tune “Feel So Sorry” was an unannounced showcase for them the other night. Strange laid down an off-center, hiccupy beat reminiscent of Fred Below’s work on Little Walter’s “Mellow Down Easy.” Sexton loped right along with him, inserting odd upbeat accents and highlighting the rhythm’s asymmetric feel.
More conventional rhythms fared equally well. A characteristically quirky original entitled “Beautiful Dream,” complete with irreverent references to Donald Trump and other contemporary figures, opened with what sounded like Little Walter-style chromatic harp runs over a Willie Dixon-style Chicago blues foundation. It quickly evolved into a Texas shuffle, complete with the accented upbeat that’s probably familiar to most listeners from Bobby “Blue” Bland’s recording of “Farther Up the Road.” It’s a simple but irresistibly catchy rhythmic device, almost impossible not to move to, and it showed the band’s ability to fuse apparently disparate styles into a coherent whole.
The jivey patter of Estrin, meanwhile, keeps the band’s well-known spirit of fun in the fore. Natty in dark glasses and affecting a modified early-Brando slouch, he intersperses his harp solos with introductions, comments, and asides that retain a good dose of the rock-and-roll irreverence that many others seem to consider either passe or somehow unseemly. He treads bravely into risky territory, as in his intro to “The Booty Song” (which he subtitled, “Honey, I Hate to See You Go, But That’s the Only Way I Get to See You Walk Away”).
“We’ve been accused of being sexist singing this song,” he intoned, head bent slightly forward as if in contrition, “but that’s not true, not true at all. Ladies have a lot of admirable attributes–I admire their intelligence, and when they have strong moral fiber. But one thing tightens my stomach like nothing else . . .”
Estrin’s gently mumbled delivery kept things from becoming salacious, and the song itself was delivered with a rhumbalike shimmy that shook and wiggled like the sexy derriere in question.
It wasn’t until a bit later that the Nightcats finally got around to the novelty songs that have become their trademark. They featured both originals and classics: “Clothesline,” the tale of a young slick going into a store to get threads for a big date, only to find that his credit’s no good, dates back to a 1956 record by Boogaloo and His Gallant Crew. The songwriting team of Lieber and Stoller appropriated the idea and transformed it into the Coasters’ better-known “Shopping for Clothes” in 1960. “Don’t Do It,” a riotous tale of medical advice as given by a very hip physician, featured Estrin at his most puckish as the band rocked behind him; “Poor Tarzan” was a Diddley-ish jungle romp supported by a pounding beat from Strange and again featuring Estrin’s motor-mouthed signifying interspersed with wide-toned squalls and piercing high-treble wails from his harp. “Dump That Chump,” another original, was a straight Chicago shuffle augmented by Baty’s T-Bone Walker-like chording.
Throughout their performance, Little Charlie and the Nightcats showed that eclecticism doesn’t have to lead to a lack of continuity. That’s not easy to do; even masters like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Matt Murphy sometimes jar with their stylistic jumps. Baty’s admiration for the Texas blues and country swing traditions is augmented by his love for the music of Tal Farlow, one of the most sublimely subtle jazz guitarists alive. It’s no surprise, then, that he manages to fuse good-time roadhouse exuberance with a unique underlying melodic and harmonic complexity. But he can also go the other direction. During “I’ll Take You Back,” another smooth Texas-style swinging shuffle, he threw in chords reminiscent of Magic Sam’s raucous blues “All Your Love”; he finally quoted directly from the melody of “All Your Love” in his solo.
It’s never easy to predict a band’s future; even an accomplished aggregation like Little Charlie and the Nightcats will have to keep evolving to meet the standards they’ve set for themselves. For one thing, a bit more attention to dynamics would help; music of this type sometimes calls for a variation in volume that rockabilly groups, for instance, can accomplish by using both acoustic and electric instruments. A solely electric band like the Nightcats might have to work a bit harder to pull it off.
But there’s enough talent, and more than enough enthusiasm, in this band to suggest that they can meet the challenges of the future. It’s encouraging that these guys, along with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets and maybe a handful of others, seem bent on resurrecting what sometimes seems to have been lost among young mainstream artists: the ability to have a riotous good time and still not compromise either intelligence or musical seriousness. It’s even more encouraging that there appears to be a significant audience out there eager to support them in that mission.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.