Blues harmonica players really put themselves into it—none more so than Rick Estrin. Not a small man, he seems to tighten his whole body, hunching and crunching to where he seems to squeeze his entire being into his four-inch diatonic axe. A ferocious power blower, he almost has to crumple himself into it in order to force out every last overtone possible from its 10 tiny holes.
Brilliant songwriter and singer, he’s also the greatest showman in blues today, if not any genre. At B.B. King’s Monday night he wore a metallic silver suit offsetting his silvering ‘stache and neo-rockabilly quiff and looked pretty much the coolest cat in history while leading his Nightcats band made up of fellow killers (guitarist Kid Andersen, drummer J. Hansen, organist/bassist Lorenzo Farrell). The set featured his self-effacing classic “Calling All Fools” (in which he evoked the harmonica style of Little Walter),
“That’s Big” (prior to which he recounted how he was introduced to the blues through his sister’s record collection and was initially perplexed by references to “big fat mamas”),
and his big evergreen “Dump That Chump,”
with its “therapeutic, magic mantra that will set you free”–not to mention his admonition to the single gals in the audience to “find somebody with a job” (ouch!), preferably one who doesn’t play a musical instrument, let alone type for a living.
This only elicited an audience request, prompting Estrin to ask for more—but solely as a meaningless exercise.
“Now that we got all the requests out of the way,” he explained—not having played any of them—“we don’t want to offend anybody by playing one instead of another. So we’re going to do one nobody asked for.”
He and the Nightcats then dove into an instrumental owing hugely to Sonny Boy Williamson II acoustic harp technique and full of call-and-response conversation back-and-forth with himself—and a fabulous hands-free bit where he stuck the harp halfway in his mouth while seamlessly continuing to solo.
“You’re the man, Rick!” someone close to the stage yelled. “No,” he humbly replied. “I’m merely a man.”
Estrin also noted that “by sheer coincidence,” Nightcats product was available at the venue for purchase.
“I don’t mean to be crass or commercial,” he added, almost embarrassed to sound so mercantile. “It’s really more of a public service announcement than anything else.”
After the show I brought up the celebration last October in Milwaukee of my friend and his fellow blues harp legend Jim Liban’s 50th year of performing, when he flew in to join some 25 local musicians who’d played with Milwaukee’s favorite son Liban over the years.
“Two of the all-time greats,” I said, looking at a picture of the pair embracing on Estrin’s phone.
“I don’t know about that,” he said, modest again to the extreme. “Maybe two of the greats that are still alive!”
Of that, at least, there can be no doubt, not with this evidence as follows: