Harmonica Driven Blues
What sustains a band for more than three decades? Not a hit radio band, but a roll-up-your-sleeves/drive to the next gig overnight/carry your own gear up the steps and night after night make people happy kind of band. One that makes them dance; sends them home to come back again – and again. What makes that kind band stay together through relatively few personnel changes? Answer: A good idea; a universal yet somehow unique good idea.
The Nighthawks sought not so much to reinvent rock and roll, but simply to have it reinvent itself by taking the original ingredients and following—if somewhat loosely—the original recipe. And like good cooks, the individual personalities involved ultimately affected the outcome. The band was over 10 years old and had baffled the mainstream industry before the term “roots rock” was coined to explain the likes of West Coasters like Los Lobos and The Blasters. By then, the affiliation with many of the living blues greats seemed to brand The Nighthawks a “blues band,” despite the fact that they played with Carl Perkins as well as Muddy Waters.
The Nighthawks had its genesis when lead singer-harmonica player extraordinaire Mark Wenner returned to his native Washington, D.C., after six years in New York City, lured back by the success of his friend Bobby Radcliff’s local acclaim with a blues band. Mark joined forces with a very young Jimmy Thackery and formed The Nighthawks in 1972. They spent a couple of years building The Nighthawks’ reputation with a revolving cast of characters until, in 1974, they decided to get the best rhythm section the area had to offer: Jan Zukowski on bass and Pete Ragusa on drums.
The Nighthawks set off on a musical mystery tour that took them to 49 states and a dozen countries. They played with nearly all the living blues legends as well as a new generation of bands sometimes called “the Blue Wave,” and released several important albums, including the best-selling Jacks and Kings with Pinetop Perkins, Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, Calvin Jones and Bob Margolin.
In 1986, Jimmy Thackery left to launch a solo career. The band meandered briefly, backing up John Lee Hooker and Pinetop Perkins and touring the East Coast with Elvin Bishop. A series of shows with guest-star guitarists including Steuart Smith, Warren Haynes, James Solberg and Bob Margolin led to a multiyear collaboration with Jimmy Hall (Wet Willie) and Jimmy Nalls (Sea Level). After their departure in 1990, a young Danny Morris joined as guitarist; his fine work can be heard on the albums Trouble and Rock This House. Danny’s pursuit of a solo career allowed Pete Kanaras a nine-year run with the band, leaving a recorded history of Pain and Paradise, Still Wild and a DVD performance with blues legend Hubert Sumlin.
In early 2005, after 30 years as a Nighthawk, Jan Zukowski decided it was time to move on. Pete Kanaras had left by then as well. As luck would have it, Paul Bell and Johnny Castle were ready, willing and able to join up and have since helped to reinvent the group. Paul Bell first sat in with the band in 1975. He paid his dues in a guitar town where he became known for his versatility and taste. As a true D.C. player, he plays a Fender Telecaster (The Rhodes Tavern Troubadours sing it: “D.C.’s a Telecaster town”). Sure, there are some Strat cats and Gibson guys, and Paul Reed Smith is from D.C., but after Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton and Steuart Smith, the canoe paddle is the choice of the D.C. faithful. And Paul, like his predecessors, knows a D.C. picker must be at home with country cluckin’ and soul chuck-chuck-chuckin’ to be “ignant” in the low-down blues or raw rockabilly, and then slip through the augmented and diminished chords of some serious jazz. Paul has brought great vitality and attitude to the performing stage and a vast wealth of recording experience to the mix. It was, in fact, after a recording session where Mark Wenner and Paul, playing slide on a beautiful steel Dobro, sat improvising on some blues licks that Mark asked Paul to join the band. Quite a few great guitarists have played extended years in The Nighthawks, and Paul stands tall among them.
Then there’s Johnny Castle. Not John: Johnny, like the guy in “The Wild One.” Johnny and his bass are one. He has crossed every genre in the D.C. world of genre crossing. Johnny made a name playing in Crank, D.C. early hard rockers that even opened for Hendrix. He was the first electric bass player on the new grass bluegrass circuit, mixing it up with Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley and clogging his way past the purists. He did a stint with the soul rockers Spatz, through Tex Rabinowitz’s Bad Boys as they morphed from pure rockabilly to the psycho/punkabilly of Switchblade, and on to a decade with Bill Kirchen. Somewhere in there, Johnny also managed a couple of tours subbing for Jan Zukowski with The Nighthawks. And stylistically, it has been observed that if Jan played much like Paul McCartney, Johnny is totally Bill Wyman. Yet unlike Wyman, Johnny has a huge presence onstage, thundering around like an unleashed pro football linebacker. No stranger to the studio, Johnny has penned many a tune, and he sings real good, too!
After a frenzied couple of years with Paul and Johnny on board, the first move was to record a live show. Blue Moon in Your Eye, a CD and DVD package, was recorded at the Barns at Wolf Trap in 2006 and released later that same year. It gave people a taste of the new band and a glimpse of things to come. While keeping up the touring pace, the band in 2008 began to sort through the material that would become 2009’s American Landscape. Including two of Johnny’s originals, the songs were road-tested and found to run extremely well and handle in the turns.
The start of 2010 brought a milestone: Pete Ragusa announced his decision to pursue other projects. Again, exceptional talent was on deck. The fabulously versatile Mark Stutso, who spent nearly two decades with Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers, jumped in without missing a beat. The West Virginia native says he experienced his “magic moment” in second grade when he first tapped on a real drum, a blue sparkle snare from Sears. From 1966 to 1977, he played steadily in his home state and in neighboring Southwest Virginia and Kentucky before joining Tricks, a rock band from Virginia Beach. After what he calls “10 fantastic years,” he moved to D.C. and played with Mike Melchione’s Smut Brothers, then joined the Drivers in 1991. “Mark Stutso was our very first choice to replace the otherwise-irreplaceable Pete Ragusa,” Mark Wenner says. “He can handle any groove and any style with ease, and he’s a world-class lead vocalist and brilliant harmony singer.”
In early 2009, Sirius XM Radio blues guru Bill Wax heard that the Nighthawks were doing some acoustic shows and suggested the band come in and cut some live tracks. The last time the Hawks had done a Bluesville Live Homemade Jam Session, Pete Kanaras and Jan Zukowski were still in the band, and Hawks’ hero and occasional partner in crime Hubert Sumlin was included. So early one weekday morning, the band showed up at the incredible Sirius XM facilities in downtown D.C. After a short sound check with engineer Michael Taylor and a lot of coffee and bagels, Michael hit the record button and in a couple of hours, the Nighthawks proceeded to knock out all the songs on what became Last Train to Bluesville. A few days later Bill handed the boys a beautifully mixed disk with permission for its release. The only addition was Bill Wolf’s mastering magic.
The opening track, Big Joe Turner’s classic “Chicken and the Hawk,” has been a fan favorite since its first appearance on 1990’s Trouble. Johnny and Pete deliver an incredible swinging groove with the upright bass and brushes. No wonder this tune is often an opener at swing dances! Next up, Muddy Waters’ “Nineteen Years Old,” gets an authentic country blues treatment, even though the original was from Muddy’s heavily amplified period. Mark has slightly altered the lyrics, adding years to the woman’s age as the song progresses.
Acoustic James Brown? Well, when James and the Famous Flames recorded the original “I’ll Go Crazy,” they were virtually a doo-wop group, and the only amplified instrument on the session was guitar. Johnny redoes two tunes he sang on the 2006 live CD, Blue Moon in Your Eye. When the acoustic Nighthawks concept was evolving, the band did a radio show in Milwaukee in an almost-acoustic format and, hearing the recording of “Thirty Days,” realized how well acoustic tunes could rock. And “You Don’t Love Me” rocks even harder.
Between those two tracks, Mark does a version of Slim Harpo’s “Rainin’ in My Heart.” Slim Harpo’s recordings were in Mark’s collection when he was just beginning to fiddle with the harmonica in high school, and one of the high points of his life was a chance to sit in with Slim Harpo and Lightnin’ Slim in New York City. Mark remembers Slim Harpo encouraging him to get a group together and stick with the guys!
“Can’t Be Satisfied” was Muddy Waters’ first hit after he moved to Chicago. Paul’s slide is nothing short of spectacular, really capturing Muddy’s feel. “Mighty Long Time” is one of the greatest, gentlest, most moving pieces Sonny Boy Williamson ever recorded: “It’s been so long, the carpet have faded on the floor….” In the Nighthawks’ version, much tribute is paid to Sonny Boy’s harp and vocal style, but the solo is taken by Paul, making the track unique.
“High Temperature” is given the doo-wop treatment it got on Pain and Paradise, although the band handles its own vocals here where they imported the Orioles on the previous version. The groove is based on one of Little Walter’s outtakes rather than on the original release. And what better closer than the Muddy Waters/Little Walter rave up of “Rollin’ and Tumblin,’ ” set up here with Pete’s distinctive tambourine-stick drumming and everybody moaning.
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