With his sharp suits, slicked-back pompadour and pencil-thin moustache, Rick Estrin looks every inch the dyed-in-the-wool bluesman.
“If you’re an entertainer or a preacher or a pimp, you gotta be sharper than the audience,” explained Estrin, who credits soul singer Rodger Collins and blues guitarist-turned-pimp Clarence “Fillmore Slim” Sims with teaching him how to dress to impress. “When you go out there, you gotta look good.”
Hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as “an amazing harmonica player, a soulful lead vocalist and a brilliant songwriter,” Estrin has been entertaining audiences across the globe for 45 years. He and his band, The Nightcats, perform Saturday at the San Luis Obispo Veterans Hall; The Strata-tones open the 21-and-older show.
Born in San Francisco in 1949, Estrin’s introduction to the blues came courtesy of his beatnik sister, a fan of legendary blues musicians Jimmy Reed and Champion Jack Dupree. She gave him a copy of Ray Charles’ “The Genius Sings The Blues” when he was 12.
“I was just drawn to that kind of music,” recalled Estrin, who picked up the harmonica at age 15. “I was a lot more interested in that than in school.”
By his late teens, Estrin was performing throughout the Bay Area with the likes of Lowell Fulson, Z.Z. Hill, Travis Phillips and Fillmore Slim, who introduced him to Collins. The soul singer took the young blues musician under his wing, teaching him the finer points of songwriting and show business.
At age 19, Estrin moved to Chicago, where he ended up jamming with Muddy Waters.
It was on a return trip to California that Estrin met Charlie Baty, a talented blues musician. The two immediately clicked.
“It was the disco days. Nobody liked this stuff,” Estrin recalled. “To find someone who was into (the blues) was a rare occurrence.”
A few years later, he once again ran into Baty, who convinced him to come to Sacramento to play a couple shows. The two finally formed Little Charlie and the Nightcats in 1976.
Over the next three decades, Baty and Estrin developed a unique sound blending classic Chicago blues with soul, surf, swing and gritty roadhouse rock, recording nine albums and building an international fan base. Baty was the band’s title leader, while Estrin — who won a 1994 Blues Music Award for his composition “My Ex-Wife” — served as its unofficial frontman.
When Baty announced his semi-retirement in 2008, “I was at a loss and shocked. I didn’t know what to do,” Estrin said. “Keeping the band going and taking over was probably the last thing on the list I was considering.”
Chief among his concerns was finding a new guitarist to perform with drummer/vocalist J. Hanson and Lorenzo Farrell, who plays bass, piano and organ.
“Little Charlie brought a lot of excitement to the music. He was really riveting to watch,” explained Estrin who eventually brought in Norwegian-born guitarist Chris “Kid” Anderson.
In the interim, Estrin worked on “establishing an identity separate of Little Charlie,” he said, releasing a harmonica-centric solo album, 2008’s “On the Harp Side,” and a DVD, “Rick Estrin Reveals Secrets Subtleties & Tricks of the Blues Harmonica.” (Although the DVD contains “practically no information about how to physically play the harmonica,” Estrin said it does teach harp enthusiasts “how to not play like an asshole. It’s such an annoying instrument if you have no taste.”)
Rick Estrin and the Nightcats released its debut album on Alligator Records, “Twisted,” in 2009.
“One Wrong Turn,” released in July, finds the band tackling fun, funky dance grooves (Desperation Perspiration,” “D.O.G.”), politically charged songs (“Lucky You,” “One Wrong Turn”) and misery-laden blues ballads (“Broke and Lonesome,” “Calling All Fools,” “Old News”).
Perhaps the most memorable track on the album is “(I Met Her On The) Blues Cruise,” a hilarious account of a drunken encounter on the high seas. The cheeky chorus says it all: “Man, I should have known better/Just look at where I met her. ... I really got no good excuse.”
The album closes with “The Legend of Taco Cobbler,” an instrumental best described as “spaghetti western meets surf rock.” (The track takes its name from Andersen’s trip to a Las Vegas buffet.)
“It was really the best experience I’ve had making a record,” said Estrin, whose songs have appeared on Grammy Award-nominated albums by Robert Cray, John Hammond and Koko Taylor. “Everything just fell into place. Everybody was full of excitement and ideas.”
Asked which song tends to appeal most to audiences, Estrin said, “Almost anything we do gets a good reaction.”
“We’re performers,” he said. “When we go out there, our intention is to kick ass and we generally do.”
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.
IF YOU GO
Rick Estrin and the Nightcats
8 p.m. Saturday
San Luis Obispo Veterans Memorial Building, 801 Grand Ave., San Luis Obispo
$20, $17 for San Luis Obispo Blues Society members
541-7930 or www.sloblues.org