No one was more surprised to win a Blues Music Award this year than Kid Andersen even though he was in Memphis along with his partners in Rick Estrin And The Nightcats because they were nominated for Band Of The Year and he was up for top guitar honors.
When the trophy was awarded for Traditional Album Of The Year — the outstanding Blind Pig collaboration Remembering Little Walter, featuring Billy Boy Arnold, Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Hummel, Sugar Ray Norcia and James Harmon that pays tribute to one of the most influential harmonica players ever — some folks probably were surprised that Hummel attempted to call up Kid to deliver an acceptance speech and take a bow. Although Andersen didn’t play a note on the disc, he was invaluable behind the scenes, recording the project, serving as its engineer and doing post-production work.
While Kid’s universally respected for his prowess on the fret board, his burgeoning talent in the control room has made him one of the most in-demand studio folks in the blues today.
Sadly, he was outside smoking a cigarette when Hummel made the call to join in the celebration and receive what was his very first BMA honor. “I didn’t see that coming,” Andersen says. “Oops! Then it won AGAIN – for Traditional Album Of The Year. I made it up that time and even snagged one of the trophies! I do believe I get to keep it.”
Not bad for a man who, at 34, is still extremely young in blues terms.
Christoffer Lund Andersen was born in Herre, a small town on a fjord in southern Norway, a short distance from the famed Telemark skiing region. After taking his first guitar lessons at age 11 from an older cousin who was into older rock ’n’ roll, he’s never wanted to be anything other than a guitar player. His introduction to the blues came one afternoon at his grandmother’s house when he was watch the local news that included a segment featuring Robert Cray at the Notodden Blues Festival. It was only a 20-second clip, but it made an instant impression.
“It just got etched in my brain,” he says. “I thought: ‘What the fuck is THAT?’”
Always a quick learner, he was playing in rock band a year later and picking up blues licks from Stevie Ray Vaughan off of a cassette tape given to him by his bass player. His life changed for good when he met another established Norwegian blues guitarist, Morten Omlid, at a youth music seminar. Under Omlid’s tutelage, Andersen got an opportunity to delve into the true depths of the blues as played by stars from the ’50s and ’60s.
“He had this huge record collection,” Kid recalls, “black guys on one side, white guys on the other. The section of black guys was a whole lot bigger, so I went there.”
Omlid loaned him several LPs, among them the essential recordings of Otis Rush and Freddy King, as well as B.B. King’s Live At The Regal, some Albert King, T-Bone Walker and more. He insisted Kid take along a Little Walter disc, too. Why? Because he said Andersen had to learn how to play behind harmonica players, too.
“Boy, was he right!” says Kid, who’s spent the better time of his career in America playing alongside some of the best reed benders in the world today.
His guitar sound is different than most contemporaries, ranging from a light West Coast feel to the surf feel and intensity of Dick Dale or Nokie Edwards of the Ventures. “I was pretty much a blues Nazi from the time I was 12 to 16,” he recalls. “I started going to music school, and then I was just an omnivore, devouring any kind of music – from rock to classical to folk music from remote parts of the world. It was only when I decided to become a professional musician that I stated weeding out what I really dug.”
Fortunately for blues lovers, he preferred roots and soul most of all.
Andersen was still in his mid-teens when he moved a couple of hours northeast to Oslo, where he quickly established himself. It wasn’t long before he landed a gig as guitarist in the house band at Muddy Waters, the top blues bar in Norway, playing behind a long list of visitors from the New World, including Jimmy Dawkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Nappy Brown, Homesick James Williamson and many more.
He was 19 or 20 when he caught the eye of another visitor.
Terry Hanck, a future BMA and Blues Blast saxophone player of the year and perennial nominee, came to town for a weeklong set. “I could see right away that he was special,” Terry says. “Not only was he a quick learner, but he knew instinctively the tone and feel I wanted to get out of a song. And he was funny, too.”
At the time, Kid was already getting to be a pretty big fish in a shallow pond, and he yearned to move to California, where many of his blues favorites, including Junior Watson, lived. “I didn’t want to come to America to go sightseeing,” he says now. “I wanted to be a part of the scene.”
It didn’t dawn on him that if he did, like most folks who’ve come before him, he would be taking a vow of poverty to play the blues. “It really didn’t matter,” he jokes. “I have a knack for poverty anyway. It doesn’t matter how much money I have…I’ll spend it in a week. I’ll never hang on to it for long.”
Hanck lived in Santa Cruz, Calif., not far from San Francisco, and returned to the States without him after the gig, but he didn’t forget. “A few months later, I needed a guitar player,” says the lanky, personable horn blower. “I called him up, asked him if he was serious, and he jumped at the chance.”
The musical marriage lasted four years before Andersen left to join Musselwhite. “All the big league stuff I’ve been involved in, I’ve NOT been the front man,” Kid says. “It’s worked for me. It hasn’t hurt my ego.”
Andersen loves Charlie. “He’s just got that aura, almost Elvis-like,” he says. “He just walks up on stage and he’s already won.”
After a five-year tour, he resigned to hook up with rising soul-blues superstar John Nemeth, a relationship that ended after a few months because of Andersen’s personal problem with alcohol. “I just went on a little bad streak, that’s all,” he says. “I prided myself for a while in never getting fired from a band for my extracurricular activities. And then I joined John Nemeth – and there went my streak!
“There’s actually no hard feelings there, though, ’cause it actually got me to take a hard look at myself and turn it around. And then I hooked right up with Rick. So it was very serendipitous and too hard to ignore.”
The timing was unbelievable. After more than 30 years on the road fronting the Nightcats, Little Charlie Baty was ready to “retire” from the road. The announcement came as no surprise to his bandmates when it was delivered about six years ago, but Estrin wasn’t ready to quit.
“Literally, the day after I got fired from Nemeth,” Kid recalls, “I called Rick to tell him I needed help to stop drinking…and he offered me the gig. It was too ominous to ignore. It meant too much to me knowing how he beat his own problems, and I knew we’d have a great thing together.
“We just feed off one another. Musselwhite’s a much more dignified delivery of what he does. There’s not more or less value in either approach. Rick is a different kind of performer. But it’s not like that was a tough adjustment for me. When I do my own stuff, I’m a real ham. That’s showbiz.
“Some people have come up to Rick after they’ve seen me with Musselwhite and say shit like: ‘Aw, you brought Kid out of his shell. Rick says: ‘No, he’s like that. He’s a fuckin’ clown, too!’
While Baty and Andersen are both exceptionally skilled guitarists well versed in all shades of blues, the lineup change proved explosive for the band. Charlie always let his guitar do the talking, preferring to receive accolades with a smile in silence as Estrin’s personality dominated the stage. With Kid in the lineup, the dynamic changed. Andersen’s gregarious personality takes over at times, allowing Estrin to relax a little more on stage.
Charlie’s “retirement” didn’t last long, though. In the past year, he’s returned – and even toured with the new Nightcats lineup to delight of audiences around the world.
“You can’t do what Little Charlie does better than him,” Kid exclaims. “He and Rick had a great chemistry. I just do what I do. It’s different. I don’t want to be any kind of copy of him. There’s a lot of common ground and spillover in our influences. But he leans in one direction and l lean a little more in the other.”
One element that comes through loud and clear is Andersen’s outrageous sense of humor. Folks who’ve “friended” him on Facebook are well aware of the frequent videos he’s posted. And others who’ve seen the band live have been exposed to something more: Kid’s persona as The Mighty Anderon, Heavyweight Champion Of The Guitar, a wrestling style character who’ll take on all comers, among them East Coast powerhouse Popa Chubby, in no-holds-barred six-string battles.
The character came about purely by accident.
“I did a show in a bar in Santa Cruz, Calif., and this lady I know who booked the gig had her secretary make a poster,” the guitar wizard recalls. “She wasn’t, shall we say, the best speller. She misspelled my name. Not only did she write ‘on’ instead of ‘en,’ but she also forgot the ‘s.’ I was ‘Kid Anderon’ instead of Andersen.
”So one of the guys I’m playing with says: ‘I kinda like it…it sounds like you’re from the future.’ My friends started calling me Anderon. We have a lot of fun with it.”
The character has taken on a life of its own over time. Today, Kid sometimes emerges from backstage like a belligerent Norse god, complete with flowing cape and oversized championship belt, wielding his guitar like a weapon, with Estrin tagging along, cigar dangling in his mouth, standing in as his manager.
“I’ve held the belt fair and square three years in a row,” Andersen chuckles, vowing never to give it up.
The road gives Kid a place to relax. When he’s home, it’s all work and no play 24 hours a day. “I live in my studio. Literally. It’s my house. There’s a bedroom and there’s the rest,” he says. “But everything else is the studio, not limited to the kitchen and toilets.”
He used the advance he received for his most recent solo album, 2006’s The Dreamer, to build and record in a home studio — dubbed Greaseland — and receive immediate gratification rather than paying someone else for the work and waiting for the results. Demand for his recording services has increased with each passing year as his skill in the booth has grown.
He’s lucky to share the home and his life with someone who totally supports him. Wife Lisa is a fellow musician who works in the 14-piece Michael Jackson tribute band, Foreverland, which has a large following in Northern California and neighboring states. “She doesn’t just put up with the home invasions caused by my recording of music,” Kid says. “She’s part of it. She’s a resource, and an incredible singer. And we gig together, too.
“She’s opened my mind even more to different kinds of soulful black music. When I came to the States, I was pretty much into BLUES. Delta and Chicago blues. When I started playing with Terry Hanck, I started getting more into soul, driving around all day, listening to Tyrone Davis and shit like that. My musical tastes used to end at about 1964. After that, 1973. But anyone good in my life has broadened my horizons.
“With Lisa, she was into the low rider music and the Dramatics and all that. Now my musical tastes have expanded to almost the early ’80s.”
Today, Kid is so busy recording others that he hasn’t given much thought to a new CD of his own. The Nightcats now use his talents, and he’s cut two live albums for Nemeth. R.J Mischo, Finis Tasby, Jackie Payne, Hanck and the Frank Bey & Anthony Paule Band all have used his services among others – every one of them by word of mouth.
“I started working with a group of people who give me a real sense of fulfillment,” he says. “I’ve got tons of songs that are half-written, you know. But it’s hard to find the impetus to make another record at my own leisure because the only time I rest is when I’m on the road.
“If somebody gave me a ton of money and a deadline, I’d do it!”
In truth, though, Andersen feels a sense of completeness through all of the other projects he works on. He puts so much effort into them that when he listens to the finished product, it literally becomes his own.
The project that’s got him particularly excited right now involves Wee Willie Walker, one of the most deserving, but horribly under-recorded singers of the 1960s.
A true soul survivor, Walker released only seven 45s for the once-powerful Goldband Records before leaving the limelight. Andersen met him a couple of years ago at a restaurant/bar in Minneapolis, where Willie has lived for decades, and then again on the Legendary Rhythm And Blues Cruise, when Walker was taking a busman’s holiday from his gig with The Butanes, an ensemble that specializes in deep soul and New Orleans style blues and heats up the cold nights in back home.
“He’s absolutely one of the greatest soul singers alive today,” Kid says. “On the cruise, nobody knows who he is, and he can kick the ass of anybody on the boat. Rick and I have taken it upon ourselves to make something happen for him. We’ve brought him out to California and have Jim Pugh on organ and guys from the Nightcats, Fabulous Thunderbirds and Elvin Bishop’s band, a horn section and even strings on one song. Without a doubt, it’s the greatest record I’ve ever been involved in.”
As prominent as he is within the blues community, Andersen never loses sight of the depth of feeling produced by artists born into the blues tradition, men like Tasby. “I’m a white guy playin’ the blues and probably shooting myself in the foot for saying this, but when you dealing with Willie or Jackie Payne or Finis, you just get the thing on. They’re just soaked in blues. You can ask ‘em what they want on their pizza and whatever answer you get sounds like blues.
“I’ve worked really hard at assimilating that, at making the sounds that I like a part of my language. But to those guys, it’s so ingrained in them, when you find people like that, you’ve got to step up your game and do whatever you can to do them justice.”
He’s also been working with John “Blues” Boyd, cousin of the legendary Eddie Boyd. Although Andersen says he’s “been (away from the stage) in the room for the past 40 years,” he sings like T-99 Nelson and Junior Parker, and he’s recording tracks now, too. “My motive’s to give back for everything I’ve received,” Kid says. “But at the same time, I’m getting to participate in some of the greatest music ever made. It’s totally rewarding.”
And there’s a new Rick Estrin And The Nightcats disc in the works, too. Recorded at the famed Biscuits And Blues bar in San Francisco, it’s entitled You Asked For It…Live!!! and should be released on the Alligator label this summer.
There are still lots of musicians he’d love to work with if he has the chance. “The first guy that comes to mind is B.B. King,” he says. “I know he’s pretty old and frail now, but I’d love the opportunity to record with him. Also guys like Bobby Womack, a big idol of mine, Oakland-based soul singer Rodger Collins, Bobby Rush and Doctor John, too. All these guys have had better careers than me. Lady Gaga. The Beastie Boys.
“Hell, I’d like to make some money!”
Photo by Bob Kieser.