- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Traditional music comes in many forms. At its best, it’s a combination of music passed down from old to young and new songs written in a traditional style. This week, two practitioners of the best of traditional music will be in the area.

On the Appalachian side, the all-woman band Uncle Earl is set to whip up some hot sets of old-time music Tuesday at Jammin’ Java in Vienna.

Quite often, young musicians come to old-time music, the music of the Appalachian mountain folk, by working their way back after starting as bluegrass or country performers or music students. The members of Uncle Earl took a different route to the modern edge of old-time music.

“All five of us, we’re all musicians who came into the music through something more old-fashioned than what we’re playing now,” says Uncle Earl guitarist Kristen Andreassen. “This is not a departure back into the roots of something. For us, it’s a break into pop music. We all played really traditional music.”

Miss Andreassen says she doesn’t know if any of the band members expected to be performers.

“Until very recently, it wasn’t even possible to imagine having a career as a performing old-time musician. The concept didn’t exist,” she says.

“So all of us learned with the expectation of just going to kitchen parties and jams for the rest of our lives and doing something else as a career. And then we’ve accidentally found ourselves making money at it.”

Coming from this angle produces a different kind of musician, one that plays more for the sheer enjoyment of making music. That feeling is clear in the playing of Rayna Gellert on fiddle, K.C. Groves on mandolin, Abigail Washburn on banjo and Sharon Gilchrist on bass.

Combine this feeling with the cooperative, collective approach of old-time music — where everyone plays together at once rather than trading solos, as in bluegrass — and the result is music with a strong energy that draws the listener in.

Old-time music is a music of emotion. It may be the heartache or passion of lost or newfound love, the anguish of hard times, the joy of a good jig or the bliss of a revelation. Uncle Earl captures all these and more with a simple, clear sound that includes the plunk of claw-hammer banjo and the raw cry of a traditional fiddle.

Layered on top of this emotional music is a wonderful variety of voices. All the members of the band sing at least one of the vocal leads, and then they all come together to create wonderful harmonies that touch the listener deep inside.

• • •

The singer has a dark mustache, dark glasses and slicked-back pompadour hair. With his two-tone shoes and zoot-style tailored suit, he looks like something from Los Angeles in the early ‘50s.

The band is playing cool, finger-snapping blues with a walking bass line and a sharp-edged, bluesy jazz guitar. The song struts along: “Sometimes my big mouth gets to talkin’ trash/Writin’ checks my poor little body can’t cash.”

The singer and harmonica player is Rick Estrin, and the band is Little Charlie and the Nightcats, who jump-start the blues at the Chevy Chase Ballroom tomorrow and the Frederick Blues Festival in Frederick, Md., on Saturday.

Their music is smooth, hip and infectious, and their show is polished, fresh and exuberant. Audience members tap their feet, bob their heads and even dance in their seats. They nod, smile and laugh out loud at the sly humor of Mr. Estrin’s songs.

The music is blues, and most of it is what Mr. Estrin has called “a mutated version of jump blues.” They don’t have the same instrumentation as a classic jump blues band (one or two horns and probably a piano). Little Charlie and the Nightcats capture the feel with the stripped-down lineup of a Chicago blues band (guitar, harmonica, bass and drums).

The band also adds in a number of other styles, including straight Chicago blues, rock ‘n’ roll, soul and maybe a little surf.

“It just sounds like Little Charlie and Nightcats,” Mr. Estrin says. “We’ve been playing together so long, we’ve just developed our own sound. We delve into these different styles, and some of them are seemingly pretty different from each other, but when it’s filtered through us, it all comes out sounding like us.”

It’s been more than 30 years since founder guitarist Charlie Baty and Mr. Estrin started the band (currently including J. Hansen on drums and Lorenzo Farrell on bass). In that time, they’ve made nine critically acclaimed recordings for Alligator Records and traveled all over the world, from Russia to Australia.

Even with all the time on the road, Mr. Estrin says, it never gets old. It helps to play with an extremely versatile and talented guitarist like Mr. Baty.

“And Little Charlie is such an imaginative player, I never know what he’s gonna do, and neither does he.”

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