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)
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):
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.
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.