116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A white guy playing the Black blues clubs was a novelty when Rick Estrin, now 71, was growing up. But that’s where he gravitated and honed his chops, after hearing the records his “beatnik” older sister played.
She was “a little bit of a nonconformist type,” he said, as were so many young people growing up in San Francisco in the ’60s.
“The folk movement they were into sort of spilled over into the blues,” Estrin said by phone in late July, while working on a CD project not far from his Sacramento home.
“She had records from people like Big Bill Broonzy and Jimmy Reed, so I heard that, and I listened to that, and I really always dug that music,” Estrin said, “and a little bit of blues and jazz like Mose Allison.”
Czech Village Blues
He picked up the harmonica at age 15, then added vocals and songwriting to his repertoire. In 2008, he formed Rick Estrin & The Nightcats.
He and his bandmates will headline the return of the Linn County Blues Society’s Czech Village Blues on Saturday, Aug. 14. The outdoor festival will rock the green space at C and Bowling streets in southwest Cedar Rapids.
Presenter: Linn County Blues Society
Where: Czech Village Green Space, C and Bowling streets in southwest Cedar Rapids
When: 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021; gates open 4 p.m.
Lineup: Flat Cat and Ship of Fools; Kevin Burt & Big Medicine; Rick Estrin & The Nightcats
Tickets: $20 in advance, $25 at the gate; ages 12 and under free with paid adult; $5 parking; lcbs.org/2021/cvb
Band’s website: rickestrin.com/home
Flat Cat will kick off the concert at 5 p.m., joining forces with Ship of Fools, the Eastern Iowa Arts Academy’s new blues band mentored by Craig Erickson. International Blues Challenge triple winner Kevin Burt of Coralville will fire up Big Medicine in the middle slot.
“I love that guy,” Estrin said of Burt. “That guy’s a great man. He’s a great writer and a great singer and a really nice guy.”
The same can be said for Estrin. Eastern Iowa blues legend Bob Dorr described Estrin as “the best blues songwriter of my era.”
That circles back to Estrin’s immersion in the genre from an early age.
Finding his niche
“When I was growing up in San Francisco, my teenage years coincided with the advent of the hippie thing, Haight Street,” he said, adding that places like the Family Dog and the Avalon Ballroom had “very eclectic lineups on their shows, like the Grateful Dead and B.B. King.”
He got to see a lot of blues greats in person, including Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
“There was something about it that moved me more than the other stuff,” he said of his fascination with the blues. “I don’t know if it was the earthiness of it or just that it seemed so genuine.”
While he noted that harmonica instruction has become an industry now, that wasn’t the case in the mid-’60s, so beginning at age 15, he spent three years learning the instrument on his own.
“I just loved it, and I learned from listening to records and trying to replicate what I heard, and the stuff that just moved me and made me feel good when I heard it. I tried to zero in on all the little nuances that were making the pieces live,” he said.
“So I started playing, and when I thought I was getting pretty good, I started as a teenager, under age, going out to bars in the ghetto section of town and sitting in and playing with different people.
“I ended up getting hired by the time I was 18 to open for Z.Z. Hill. And that just started me on my way. After that, one thing led to another and I was playing these clubs. I was kind of like a novelty act, like a white guy that played blues.”
He moved to Chicago around age 20, where he played with a lot of blues legends.
“Chicago is a lot different than California,” he said. “The music is the byproduct of the culture. I think that’s something I intuitively felt even as a youngster. … That’s probably why I ventured out and immersed myself in that scene.”
He came back to California around 1976, and started playing with guitarist Charlie Baty. They formed Little Charlie & The Nightcats, and play together until Baty retired from touring in 2008. That’s when Rick Estrin & The Nightcats kicked in.
Feeling that he’s “always been a little odd” helped Estrin find his voice as a singer and songwriter, too. Having a “skewed vantage point” worked in his favor. And he had a little help from some friends.
During his initial weeklong engagement with Z.Z. Hill, a friend’s neighbor brought recording artist Rodger Collins to see the teenager in action. A successful songwriter and R&B singer, Collins had scored a hit with “She’s Looking Good.”
He liked what he heard on stage, asked young Estrin to open for him, and started teaching him the business end of music.
“The time I spent with him was really, really valuable,” Estrin said. “He taught me a lot about songwriting and a lot about entertainment.”
Estrin always sang as a kid and “had a pretty good voice.”
“Now I got more character,” he said with a laugh, noting that his bandmates, in their 40s, keep him young.
Known for his slick attire and polished look, his character shines through in concerts, even if it’s hot outside.
“I’m pretty used to being in a suit in inappropriate weather,” he said. “It’s pretty normal for me.”
Instead of worrying about his comfort zone, he’ll be in Cedar Rapids to “cherry-pick” from his wide catalog of music, including the 2019 album, “Contemporary.” And to make sure the crowd is having fun.
“I love the audience,” he said. “I love an audience that’s engaged and interactive.”
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