I've been following the 'Hawks since I long ago chanced upon their excellent '76 Open All Night LP in a used record shop and then laid hold of everything I could find by them. The band was indie as hell long before being so was fashionable, and I've always filed 'em in with The Juke Joint Jumpers, Siegel-Schwall Band, Jim Suhler & Monkeybeat, and a small mess of other groups that forever managed to keep things fresh, gritty, and snappin'. This latest CD is copped from a Sirius/XM radio concert, acoustic and straight to disc.
For me, that brings in a new wrinkle on an old but way too small tradition. 'Member all those audiophile LPs that used to feature live music or studio gigs direct to a two-track masters with absolutely no overdubs? When whatcha heard was 100% what was played? Those things succeeded to a jaw-dropping degree, preserving the immediacy of musicianship in a way few techniques could, frequently electrifying for their élan. Well, that's what happened here. The foursome checked into the studio and just went to it, producing a sound that's spotlessly clean while raw yet smooth, an exercise in what the blues used to be. The engineer, Michael Taylor, pulled off a flawless job capturing the event, preserving every last note pristinely, perfectly balanced.
In that environment, the Nighthawks prove that, now past the three decade mark, they're better than ever. There's just a way in that which blues masters seem to hold best. At times, as in the take on You Don't Love Me, I was reminded of the acoustic interlude in Foghat's killer Return of the Boogie Men, where the group proved beyond doubt that they, too, were by no means beaten down by time, market fortunes, or the biz itself, still true to the music. In the Nighthawks, Paul Bell's as finessey and inventive on guitar as ever while Mark Wenner's harp slices through everything, a siren call keeping its sharpened paces as a lead voice…and, of course, his singing is as strong, commanding, and sure as on the very 1st LP, perhaps more so.
Wenner originally founded the ensemble with Jimmy Thackery, who left early, then later picked up drummer Pete Ragusa manning one of the coolest time keeping duties around, a tasty blend of hip timekeeper and subtle player, a cat who never cops the spotlight but also whose absence would be irreparably damaging. Shortly thereafter, Bell was located along with bassist Johnny Castle, the latter as cagily unprepossessing as Ragusa, content to lay down a laid-back swinging secondary groove deceptive in its quiet ways.
All the tracks here are covers of the greats—Chuck Berry, Sonny Boy Williamson, even Leiber and Stoller, etc.—a dip into the well that comes up with blues aqua vitae admixed with swamp water and Louisiana sunlight (catch Bell's solo in Mighty Long Time for that last dose), but it's the sheer calm energy and bravura that impresses above everything else. These guys have everydamnthing well under control and cook with fingersnapping ease, masters of the genre and as born to it as a gator to a mangrove. When the CD closes with a spirited comp on Rollin' and Tumblin' , you can't help but smile like the cat that got the cream, licking your chops, content that all's right with the musical world.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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