Blowing the blues away

American harmonica player-vocalist Rick Estrin comes to Israel for a three-date tour

RICK ESTRIN ‘I always felt like sort of an outsider’ (photo credit: MARILYN STRINGER)
RICK ESTRIN ‘I always felt like sort of an outsider’
(photo credit: MARILYN STRINGER)
Over the last few years the blues sector has enjoyed an ever-rising profile here, with festivals running in Tel Aviv and, more recently, in Sderot drawing large crowds. The casts of performing artists were largely culled from the domestic community, with some heavyweight additions brought over from abroad.
There is a new treat in store for local blues fans next week (December 20-22), when irrepressible American harmonica player-vocalist Rick Estrin comes this way for a three-date tour of Israel, taking in shows at the Talkhouse in Tel Aviv Port (December 20, 10 p.m.), the Elma Arts Complex in Zichron Ya’acov (December 21, 10 p.m.) and the Sderot Cinematheque (December 22, 10 p.m.). Estrin will be joined by local blues guitarist Andy Watts.
It is a fair bet that even the most seasoned of blues aficionados have never seen anything like Estrin. The 65-year-old evergreen frontman has been pumping out the blues for nigh on half a century, and keeping his audiences royally entertained in the process.
AS A white kid from the San Francisco suburbs, Estrin was something of an outsider when, as a teenager, he started venturing out to catch shows at downtown black clubs. That was after he’d received a helping sibling hand.
“I always loved music, but I began getting deeper into black American music when I was around 10 years old,” he explains. “I have a sister who’s about six years older than me, and she had some [singer-guitarist-harmonica player] Jimmy Reed records, some Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Hooker – stuff like that. There was something about those records that spoke to me. There was something that felt real exciting about that music – like that was real life. She could see how into it I was, and for my 12th birthday she gave me an album by Ray Charles called The Genius Sings The Blues.”
Estrin says he was often the only white face at the aforementioned venues, but he was cool with that. “I always felt like sort of an outsider anyway. I think that was one reason I was so attracted to the blues. I began going out to black nightclubs and bars to hear the music, hanging out and sitting in with bands, when I was just a teenager. I think I was regarded as an oddity, but for the most part people were real nice to me.”
Politeness quickly turned into great interest when the youngster began blowing into his mouth organ. “Once they heard me, I got mostly all positive attention. I was like a novelty!”
News of the wunderkind spread quickly, and Estrin began mixing with some of the established characters of the blues community. “During that time, I met some great people who were real helpful to me in my career, people like [guitarist-vocalists] Fillmore Slim, Travis Phillips and [singer] Rodger Collins. That was also around the time when I first met [guitarist-vocalist] Joe Louis Walker. He was another young guy on the scene, who was about my age.”
Walker has performed here several times in recent years.
Initially, Estrin went for a different instrumental mode of expression. “I played a little guitar as a kid, and I still use the guitar for writing songs, but my mother gave me a harmonica when I was 15 years old.”
At the time, the youngster was in need of solace, and Estrin started channeling some of his pent-up feelings through the sounds he made with his mouth.
“My father had just died, and I turned to that harmonica for comfort,” he explains. “To me, the harmonica can be so personal, so emotionally expressive. It can be like a direct channel from your heart. Also, it’s so portable. You can always have it right there. You can feel it in your pocket and know that at any time, you can steal away and go off by yourself and take comfort in playing just for yourself.”
Although he listened to the hits of some of the leading bands of the sixties, like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Estrin says it was the blues that really caught his ear and his heart. He fed off the sounds of some of the iconic exponents of his chosen instrument, such as Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, James Cotton, Junior Wells and Junior Parker.
He also began to combine blowing into his harmonica with vocals. Ray Charles and BB King provided him with early inspiration in that department, but he had to recalibrate when puberty set in. “As I got older and my voice changed, I had to develop my own, more conversational style,” he notes.
I wondered when he became conscious of the need to put on a show. Estrin says looking the part came to him naturally, although he got some helping hands along the way. “I may have always been inclined that way, but I owe a lot of my knowledge of the importance of showmanship to different performers I got to spend time around when I was starting out. I tried to pay close attention.
“When I was 18, and just beginning to work in the black nightclubs of the Bay Area, I was lucky enough to meet the great R&B singer-songwriter and showman Rodger Collins. He probably helped me in some specific ways more than anyone else. Rodger really took me under his wing. He took me on the road for the very first time, and took me to school on showmanship, songwriting, and show business in general – both the show part and the business part.”
Judging by Estrin’s onstage demeanor, Collins did a helluva job.
For tickets and more information: *6119 – Tel Aviv, *9080 – Zichron Ya’acov, and (08) 684-9695 – Sderot.