With Little Charlie Baty’s touring retirement from the band that bore his name for 30 years or so, the mantle has become front man Rick Estrin’s solely. Rick Estrin and the Nightcats’ Alligator debut Twisted is a delight on a couple of fronts. Estrin’s unparalleled harmonica work, his sly vocalizing and songs infused with his well known acerbic wit stand out as boldly as on any previous Little Charlie & the Nightcats effort.
If anything, the harp work is more impressive. Add the super tight Nightcats rhythm team of J. Hansen and Lorenzo Farrell, drums and bass respectively, and the new "kid" in the lineup, guitarist Kid Andersen (who also co-produced with Estrin), and the result is wholly impressive. Having cut his teeth with Charlie Musselwhite, young Andersen comes to the lineup with an impressive resume and chops to spare. Baty’s are some mighty big guitar shoes to fill. He redeems himself brilliantly. His allegiance to the sound that Baty made so instantly recognizable is clear, but he’s got a few licks and tricks of his own to recommend him. too. This is nobody’s clone and clearly a young guitar icon in the making.
Some Nightcats themes are repeated, as on "Walk All Day," reflecting "The Booty Song (I Love to Watch You Walk Away)" from 1988’s Disturbing the Peace. There’s an undeniable degree of formula to the Nightcats sound. That’s OK. You know unmistakably who you’re listening to. "Take It Slow" soaked through and through with Jimmy Reed emotion, Estrin’s virtuosic harmonica is beautifully rendered. He’s more impressive yet on the chordal chromatic work of "Cool Breeze." "A Ton of Money" as getting’ over and getting’ respect and "PA Slim is Back" as homage to a rug-cuttin’ rhythm rhymer are naturals for blues radio.
Hansen takes a vocal showcase in "I’m Takin’ Out My In-Laws," a song that has nothing to do with making reservations at the best restaurant in town and everything to do with digging a nice sized hold in the back yard. The word play on "Back from the Dead" ranks among Estrin’s best in a long line of songs with humorous lyrics and serious topics: "Man, I was heart broken/chain smokin’/drinkin’ wine and takin’ dope/hit the wall/took a fall/damn near wasn’t here at all/Hey buddy, I ain’t jokin’/I came this close to croakin’/but now I’m back, back from the dead." On "Catchin’ Hell," a deep blues that could have been written anthematically for the new depression, he sings "Good times/man they never seem to last/there were hard times/ they’re gainin’ on me fast/I hear things about a turnaround/But I know only time will tell/Man, all I know right now/I’m catchin’ hell." Andersen’s guitar is a superb foil to Estrin’s emotive vocals here, giving it delicate and substantive shading.
The acoustic guitar and harp on "Someone, Somewhere" has shades of Lightnin’ Hopkins in the mix and the closing "Big Foot," a vehicle for Andersen, conjures a swingin’ rockabilly flavored Dick Dale groove with a dab of Danny Gatton in the stew. Whew!
One of the standout albums of the year? Absolutely. As good as any of the Baty/Estrin material against which it will inevitably be measured and further proof that Rick Estrin is one of the most important blues figures of the past quarter century.