In their appropriately titled Damn Good Time!, veteran DC-based blues rockers the Nighthawks prove that after decades on the road, they can still serve up a toe-tapping set to satisfy their blues-roots following and make a few new friends in the process. Damn Good Time! follows up their Blues Music Award-winning Last Train to Bluesville (Acoustic Album of the Year, 2011) to continue the Nighthawks’ late-career renaissance.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Nighthawks had a growing cult following, especially in the East. They toured relentlessly throughout the early decades (I caught them at the Cabooze on Minneapolis’ West Bank in 1981 and again in 2007, 26 years later). Of the band’s early offerings, Open All Nite in 1976 (with Edward Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks” painting on the cover) and Jacks & Kings in 1977 (with studio work by the late Pinetop Perkins and Bob Margolin, both of Muddy Waters’ crew) represented their best work. The departure of gifted lead guitarist Jimmy Thackery in 1987 rocked the band, but harpist Mark Wenner (who sported copious tattoos long before they were trendy) held the band together through the years, much as fellow harp-player Kim Wilson held together the Fabulous Thunderbirds after the departure of Jimmie Vaughan. Although the rhythm section remained relatively stable (until recently Jan Zukowski on bass and Pete Ragusa on drums), the Nighthawks had a succession of lead guitarists, including a brief stint by Warren Haynes, until Pete Kanaras’ nine-year stay in the early 2000s. By the time they entered the studio to record Damn Good Time!, Zukowski and Ragusa had been replaced by Johnny Castle and Mark Stutso, and Paul Bell had taken over as guitarist.
The Nighthawks continued to tour through the 1990s and 2000s, becoming known as one of the hardest-working blues outfits on the scene, and released numerous decent but unmemorable albums. Although the Nighthawks’ musicianship was always solid, since the departure of Thackery they seemed to be running on a hamster wheel – perpetually in motion but never getting anywhere. Finally, with Last Train to Bluesville they received their first-ever recognition from the Blues Music Awards, which seems to have sparked their and their fans’ enthusiasm.
Damn Good Time! is an excellent outing. As always, Wenner is outstanding. He is certainly in the conversation about the better active blues harp players (after James Cotton and Charlie Musselwhite, who are in a class by themselves). And the chemistry in the current Nighthawks lineup seems as good as its been since the mid-1980s. What comes across is a sense of fun that was less pronounced on some of the Nighthawks’ back catalogue. And Bell’s inspired guitar licks provide an excellent dialogue with Wenner’s harp solos. The album presents an entertaining selection of songs, beginning with a swinging rockabilly version of the Elvis tune “Too Much,” and the rollicking “Who You’re Working For,” by Billy Price. The title track continues the fun with a sense of humor and some great harp playing. “Bring Your Sister” has a retro-rock feel; then the band slows things down a bit with Nat King Cole’s “Send For Me.” The album contains several originals and three songs by Pittsburgh songwriter Norman Nardini – “Minimimum Wage,” “Down To My Last Million Tears,” and the final track, “Heartbreak Shake” – all of which should please blues enthusiasts.
About the author: Bill Wilcox is a roots music enthusiast recently relocated from the Washington, DC area to Philadelphia, PA and back again.