DC-based blues-rockers the Nighthawks seem to be undergoing a late-career resurgence, winning their first Blues Music Award with Last Train to Bluesville (acoustic album of the year, 2011), and following that up with a solid effort on Damn Good Time! in 2012. With 444, front man Mark Wenner and the boys continue to crank out high-energy, high quality blues and throw-back rock ‘n’ roll.
With origins in the 1970s, the Nighthawks gathered a loyal cult following, especially in the East. They toured relentlessly throughout the early decades. Of the band’s early offerings, Open All Nite in 1976 and Jacks & Kings in 1977 (with studio work by Muddy Waters sidemen Pinetop Perkins and Bob Margolin) represented their best work. The departure of gifted lead guitarist Jimmy Thackery in 1987 threw the band into a period of constant change, but harpist Mark Wenner held the band together through the years. 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 By the time they entered the studio to record Damn Good Time!, Zukowski and Ragusa had been replaced by Johnny Castle and Mark Stutso, and Paul Bell had taken over as guitarist.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 same lineup, and its positive chemistry, was on hand for 444.
The Nighthawks have always featured a raw, unvarnished Chicago-blues style, but their latest albums, especially 444, feature as much throw-back rock and roll as blues, which, when paired with Wenner’s animated vocals, is a good fit for this talented outfit. And with other capable singers in the lineup, the band can mix up their sound. As usual with the Nighthawks’ recent albums, there is a mix of originals and covers on 444. Among the originals, rock-a-billy tinged title tune “444 a.m.” was written by Castle. “Honky Tonk Queen” was written by Wenner with contributions from the original Nighthawks. The catchy “High Snakes” was written by Castle and DC guitar legend Bill Kirchen (formerly of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen), “No Secrets” is a Wenner original, and the closing country ballad, “Roadside Cross,” is another gem by Castle. But some of the covers, like the Du Droppers’ “Talk that Talk” (called “Walk that Walk” on 444), the Everly Brothers’ “The Price of Love” and Elvis tunes “Got a Lot of Livin'” and “Crawfish” inject the album with a throw-back flavor. There are also a couple of blues covers, such as the Nighthawks’ excellent rendition of Gary Nicholson’s “Nothin’ But The Blues” and their gritty take on Muddy Waters’ “Louisiana Blues’ with a rollin’ and tumblin’ vibe. The album should please the Nighthawks’ followers and newcomers alike.
Audio Stream: The Nighthawks, “Got a Lot of Livin'”