These days, the blues seems to exist outside popular music, partitioned off to clubs full of worker bees unwinding with a few beers and a Grammy category they don’t even telecast. Which is why you’ve probably never heard of Little Charlie and the Nightcats. Little Charlie would be Little Charlie Baty, who resembles one of my great-uncles circa 1964 and plays as much guitar as Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy put together. He’s the kind of musician who makes you step up to the front and watch his hands. Flying from perfectly timed, color-inside-the-lines execution to abstract expressionism painted with a tommy gun, he ignores boundaries— blues, rockabilly, jazz, country, swing, and rock all flash across his Fender hollow-body and green Strat. “Right Around the Corner” moves from scratchy retrosurf bridges to flashy countrified solo, while “Gerontology” percolates with bebop cadences.
The other leg the band stands on is frontman Rick Estrin. The two have played together for 20-odd years (and I’m sure they have been odd), working out a parity between Estrin’s crooning vocals and wailing harmonica and Little Charlie’s guitar. Baty can have the visceral impact of a waterfall of cinder blocks, but Estrin smooths the edges with the panache of a man who sported a diamond pinkie ring long before it became ironic. His songs dwell on the usual blues courtships, infidelities, and breakups, but with roguish wit and a way of rushing toward a dirty joke or an obvious rhyme only to gracefully sidestep it at the last moment.
As drummer June Core and (mostly stand-up) bass man Ronnie James Weber churn with the steady thump of a V-8 engine over a back road, this music always seems to be in motion: the 4/4 bump of “I Can Deal With It,” the stroll of “My Way or the Highway,” the glides and struts of other tunes. Estrin’s songs don’t seem composed in the studio, but written on the road. The road is where this band lives, moving from city to city, peddling CDs and T-shirts between sets in what Estrin called “not really selling— more like service.” So just start with a copy of the Alligator compilation Deluxe Edition next time you’re at his “mall.” The blues needs converts, and Little Charlie and the Nightcats, playing for “you people at the back of the bar who don’t know what the hell you’re seeing,” make a few new believers every night.