Concert Review – Nighthawks – Blues at the Bull Run

They’ve played with everyone from Muddy Waters & Pinetop Perkins to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. They’re the masters of electric Chicago Blues, Rock and Roll, Soul and Rockabilly, all wrapped up in an unpretentious, red-hot, good-time vibe.
—-From the advert for the band at the Bull Run Restaurant

Dave Grohl is always raving about the punk scene in Washington, D.C. in the late ’70’s and into the ’80’s. But there was (and for all I know, still is) a great blues scene there as well. The Nighthawks grew out of that scene, the same one that spawned the band Powerhouse that I wrote about a while back.

They have been around in some fashion since 1972, having been founded by (believe it or not) current vocalist/harp player Mark Wenner and ace guitarist Jimmy Thackery. (Thackery went solo some time ago.)

I’ve known about these guys approximately forever, somewhat forgot about them and jumped at the chance to see them when they came to town. A quick glance at their tour schedule shows that, at least currently, they are tending to play largely in their home area, typically venturing about as far as Maryland or Pennsylvania. (Sometimes to Florida. One guy came up from Texas just for this show.) This was their first foray into New England in quite some time.

While at heart a four-piece blues band, as mentioned above they also play rockabilly, 50’s tunes, and a little bit of country. They have three lead singers and the guitarist sings backup as well. They remind me of no one so much as the early Band or their precursor, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, especially when the drummer (really fine voice) sings.

Apparently, some of their songs (or at least one) were used in the HBO series, The Wire, that I’ll actually get around to watching one day. “Sixteen Tons” is actually an old country tune, written by Merle Travis, popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford. The Nighthawks heard this song about the tough life of a coal miner and jacked it up a bit. (Starts at about: 16)

Spotify link

That’s their take on country. What about the blues? Well, when you have a guy with a custom-made boxful of harmonicas, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re gonna get.

I had a nice front seat view (small club, 28 bucks a ticket) and I was determined to finally get a good video. So I started the camera up on my phone, figuring I would record the next song they did, whatever it was.

Happily, it was a Little Walter tune called “My Babe” which fellow blogger Cincinnati Babyhead conveniently featured not too long ago. You can read his piece here, listen to the Nighthawks blow it out below (can’t find this one on Spotify but this is my video so you should be able to hear it):

You can tell by that video that this was one hot show. (That bald guy in the audience whose head you see pop out periodically was rockin’ like that all night. Thought his head would fall off at one point.) The band went back and forth from blues to ’50’s to country, eventually settling in on some Muddy Waters stuff. (“Mojo,” “Mannish Boy.”)

But here’s a kick – Sopranos fans doubtless remember the theme song from the show, “Woke Up This Morning.” You may or may not know that that wasn’t written for the show but was in fact a tune by a British band called Alabama 3 or A3. (My wife is a big fan of the song so I bought it and put it on her iPod way back when.)

Now I have never heard anybody do this song live. Until last Saturday night. It’s such a great, merciless, evil little number. (A3 actually wrote it about a woman who killed her husband after years of abuse.) The on-screen legend refers to it as “Blue Moon In Your Eye,” but that’s the name of their album, not the song. (That piece of metal you see on the guitar is a slide that’s stuck on the guitar with Velcro that he whips off and plays now and again):

Spotify link

Allmans connection – by the late ’70’s, the Allman Brothers Band was a spent force, and Gregg didn’t really have a band. So he played with the Nighthawks for a good portion of 1978. “When I was in Daytona,” Gregg says,” somebody told me about the Nighthawks. … That night the Nighthawks were blowing. They asked me to come out on the road with them, and I figured, why not? So we went out and did a shitload of gits, mostly around the Midwest and Northeast.”

If you look at the billing for a show, it’s Gregg and the Nighthawks with much of the material being drawn from the Allmans’ catalog. Here they are playing “Crossroads,” to my recollection never an ABB regular.

Interestingly, and by the merest coincidence, Warren Haynes joined the Nighthawks for a while in the mid-80’s. Not clear if he knew any of the Allmans at that point but I don’t think so.

A few years later, Dickey Betts tapped Haynes for his own band. Two years after that, the Allmans reformed and the two ex-Nighthawks were reunited for twenty-five years till the band’s demise in 2014.

Anyway, a great show, one of the best, tightest blues ‘n boogie bands I’ve seen in quite some time.

Nighthawks website

Personnel:

Mark Wenner (vocals and harmonica)
Paul Bell (lead guitar)
Johnny Castle (bass guitar)
Mark Stutso (drums)

Sources: Wikipedia; band website; My Cross to Bear, by Gregg Allman.

15 thoughts on “Concert Review – Nighthawks – Blues at the Bull Run

  1. Well, well, well… they really are pretty wonderful, huh? I dare say the kind of band that you really have to see live.

    I’ll be sure to check out all I can find. Also, I’d highly recommend The Wire if you should get the chance (season 5 was a disappointment, but the rest of it is some of the best telly I’ve ever seen).

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    1. Yeah, they may well-liked have a wider travel radius. Local to DC was all I saw on their current tour list. Could be an end-of-year decision, don’t know. As to the Wire, yeah, one of these days.

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  2. So much good stuff in your piece. The music is so good. Will be putting them on the spin list. The “Best Of’ has some interesting tunes on it. How about that Merle Travis cut? Very cool. Good one Doc. Oh yeah the ‘My Babe’ cooked. Love his harp.

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  3. Sounds like a cracking show, that Wenner chap sure can blow the harp. I’m still trying to figure out the velcro and slide thing though…. presumably that would mean the corresponding strip of velcro is attached to the slide, wouldn’t that prove more hindrance than help?

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    1. Totally balls-out show. They’re returning in the spring and I’m there. As to the velcro, you may be right. I confess I’m not 100% sure what was holding the slide on the guitar so securely. Velcro would have to be on both slide and guitar, to your point. So I dunno, a magnet? Whatever it was, it stayed there till he needed it. And he played it well in standard tuning, which is harder.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Was a really big fan of “the hawks” from 78 to sometime in the late 90’s. Saw them every time they came out west which they haven’t done in years.Do they still also go by “the greatest bar band in the world”. I maybe saw them 5 or 6 times and they never disappointed. Mark Wenner had a couple solo albums back in the early 80’s that were awesome. Love his harmonica playing. I always have thought that Thackery left the group so he could be the headliner and showcase his guitar talents more and he has done a great job at that. Mark Stutso (drummer) played with Thackery for many years and left a few years back to join the Hawks. I could go on and on about these guys but I’ll stop now.

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    1. Yep, still ‘greatest bar band.’ As many times you saw ’em I kept missing them. What a great show. I heard Thackery with fellow bluesman Tab Benoit on the blues channel on satellite. I think I might be featuring their tune one day. I’m keeping my eye on the Hawks tour schedule. Maybe they’ll get outside their DC comfort zone. But if they come back as promised in the spring, I’m there and I’m bringing a crew.

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      1. Jim
        Back in the day we turned on a bunch of people to “the hawks” and every one of them loved the shows. The main reason I kind of lost track of them is that “they stay in their comfort zone”. In the last week I have dusted off some of my old “Hawks” albums thanks to you and enjoying the hell out of them. Thackery used to put on one hell of a show (hours long) but age has slowed him down but he still plays a amazing guitar if you ever get a chance to see him.

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