I don't know how many LPs and CDs the 'Hawks have released, but I discovered the group's work one day long ago in the record bins of a favorite brick-and-mortar used record shop in L.A. and have collected everything I could find since then. So far, that's 9 LPs (incl. 1 'best of"), the CD version of Psyche Delly 'cause it has 4 extra songs beyond the vinyl version, the CD Trouble, and now this one. No idea how many releases they've tallied all together, but I know there's a recent-ish CD / DVD set out there and probably more besides, so I'm still a-huntin', 'cause this is one righteous blues group.
Liner scribe Don Wilcock refers to the Nighthawks as a "white boys blues band", an interesting usage I wasn't convinced was still circulating. Back in the 70s, we called this kind of music "dirty white blues" and it's always been my favorite, though when I hear Albert Collins, Freddie & Albert King, and a number of the rawer-edged black cats, I waver mightily. To my mind, Peter Green is the greatest blues player bar none, and the early Fleetwood Mac catalogue is the equivalent of splinters of the true cross. When Mike Vernon issued a 6-disc box set remastering and greatly expanding those LPs…well, I still haven't gotten over it a decade later. If you haven't heard that slice of heaven, you've no clue what you're missing.
Well, here we have more in the dirty white vein, and it's been five years since the last Nighthawks studio disc. That's much too long, Ferguson, I don't care what anyone says. Thus, from the raw grit of the extremely powerful opening track, Big Boy, with Mark Wenner's throaty vocals and Paul Bell's shimmering slide, on through to the cover of the Andy Griffith Show's Fishin' Hole Theme, we get a shifting potpourri of everything the band offers. This means: get ready for swing, soul, shuffle, and the fundamental blues the guys have specialized in since 1972. As far as I can tell, the only founding members left are Mark Wenner and Pete Ragusa (drums) but the ensemble is every inch as solid and unmistakable as the day they emerged, now with a buttload of vintage touring chops and ever-increasing stylistic sophistication.
Except for a couple of compositions from bassist Johnny Castle, American Landscape is a collection of covers, some standard, some not, but each cut's the measure of the next. Their version of Tom Waits' Down in the Hole waxes more to the folky, bayou, and fallen gospel ways, invested heavily with Wenner's lyrical harp. Dylan's She Belongs to Me is a cross between Leon Redbone and Charlie Musselwhite while Ike Turner's Matchbox dips into swingin' jazzy tempos, guitarist Bell pickin' some great lines, trading solos with Wenner. All along, Ragusa and Castle keep a tight and grooving rhythm section going, a rootsily undulating shuffle floor, a perky coffee house jive square.
Through it all, though, one thing's obvious, though: Mark Wenner is one of America's best when it comes to that sweet little pocket horn, the harmonica. Lee Oskar, John Popper, Musselwhite, you name 'em, I say he stands foursquare with 'em, displaying an elegance and eloquence not common to the instrument even despite such estimable company. There's a dynamism and lyricality in his lines that separates Wenner from the crowd, an ability to sketch and paint like a guitarist in well thought out flights of fancy.
Like the old Siegel-Schwall Band, another dirty white blues group from years of yore, the Nighthawks have been around a long long time, longer than the Siegel gaggle, and remain standing as some of the best this country has produced in the genre. That's why they can tour their brains out (250—275 gigs a year!) for 36 years and always find the welcome matt rolled out no matter how many times they pass through.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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