june 2012

40th Anniversary edition Nighthawks: (from left) Mark Winner, Johnny Castle, Mark Stutso, Paul Bell.

At 40, Better Than They Ever Was

By David McGee

nighthawksDAMN GOOD TIME
The Nighthawks
Severn Records

Ever reliable on record and on stage, Washington, D.C. blues stalwarts the Nighthawks are heading into their 40th year with not merely another solid album but better than they ever was. Newest member Mark Stutso joined the band in 2010, stabilizing a lineup that includes founding member Mark Wenner, the harmonica man nonpareil, and veterans of a near-decade’s standing, guitarist Paul Bell and bassist Johnny Castle. This seasoned quartet wastes no time reminding us that the Nighthawks have always been more than a blues band, kicking off the album with a stomping version of “Too Much.” Now, the most popular version of the aforementioned song is by Elvis Presley--it was one of the King’s finest early singles, in fact, going to #1 pop and #3 R&B as the B side of the double-sided hit featuring “Playing for Keeps” as its A side. Lost to history is the original recording by Bernard Hardison, released in 1954 on Republic Records. But it’s Hardison’s gritty, pleading version that informs the Nighthawks’ memorable take, which is, as Stutso notes on the band’s website, “channeled through the ghost of Jimmy Reed.” Elsewhere, a fiery rendition of Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together” is fueled by the versatile Stutso’s stury vocalizing and a smoking harp solo from Wenner. No mere blues band this.

When he’s not spicing things up with his harp--and sometimes when he is--Wenner does double duty as lead vocalist, demonstrating his ever deepening facility with sensitive lyrics on a gently swinging take on the oft-recorded love song, “Send for Me,” best known in Nat King Cole’s 1957 single version (written by Ollie Jones, who was also with the Ravens, and--continuing this album’s Elvis connection--wrote “Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers” for the King), even as he swaggers through a rockin’ take on Jimmy McCracklin’s ebullient dance tune, “Georgia Slop.” Of the new material “Minimum Wage” (a Stutso co-write with his Pittsburgh buddy Norm Nardini) stands out as a down-and-out blues lamenting a one-side love affair, with not only Wenner’s gritty vocal and howling harp to recommend it, but a rousing Paul Bell guitar solo as well; the title track, which both Stutso and Johnny Castle had a hand in writing, has a sultry southern soul groove, smooth, crooning backing vocals, another robust Wenner harp solo and powerhouse, testifying Stutso vocal. Whether uptempo or deep into dark blues, the Nighthawks bring it home, mightily, on Damn Good Time. Damn straight!

The Nighthawks’ Damn Good Time is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024