After almost 40 years, the Nighthawks have come to embody blue-collar blues

by YES! Staff

After almost 40 years, the Nighthawks have come to embody blue-collar blues

You don’t often hear of bands hitting their prime after more than 35 years of recording and performing, but the Washington DC-based blues warriors the Nighthawks are doing just that. Coming into their performance at the 23 rd Annual Carolina Blues Festival, their first at the festival in 10 years, the four-piece touring dynamos are riding the crest of one of the most successful albums of their careers. They’ve maintained a stable lineup, though they have witnessed some alums go off to even greater notoriety, and built a reputation as one of the hardest working acts of any stripe. With their 26 th album to date among numerous solo efforts, American Landscape has performed very favorably among the various official and unofficial blues charts. It has landed at No. 8 on the Living Blues rankings, while multiple tracks have peaked as high as No. 2 on BB King’s “Bluesville” on Sirius/XM Radio. The album’s title itself is a fitting handle, as its content runs the stylistic length of the entire American blues spectrum. With but two original tracks, both by bassist Johnny Castle, American Landscape isn’t necessarily a cover album. It is, however, an honest and forthright take on some of the band’s major influences and favorite tracks tempered by years of performing, from the prominent to the obscure. With reworked material by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Ike Turner, Marvin Gaye and even a new take on the theme from “The Andy Griffith Show,” the album shows the simultaneously rugged and refined chops of Castle, vocalist and harmonica player Mark Wenner, drummer Pete Ragusa and lead guitarist Paul Bell. Founding member Wenner says that this may very well be the strongest the band has ever been in its 37year existence and though each member’s pedigree indisputably supports that assertion, one can only wonder where they might be today had a certain lineup addition worked out for the long term. When original lead guitarist Jimmy Thackery decided to leave the band in 1987 after tiring of their persistent touring, several musicians were brought in to serve in the interim. Among them were Steuart Smith, James Solberg and Bob Margolin, but one in particular went on to leave an indelible impression on the blues world. Also working as a member of Dickey Betts’ band Great Southern, Warren Haynes was asked to fill in on lead guitar for the Nighthawks. Great Southern’s down time came just at the right time and Haynes obliged the request. “Jesus, he was amazing,” said Wenner. “Between being an incredible guitar player and singer and just being a super great guy, I would have loved to have him in the band.” Haynes went on to spend a month touring with the Nighthawks and an offer was made to make him a permanent member, but he instead honored the commitment to work with Betts once Great Southern picked back up. Since then, greats like Danny Norris have worn the lead mantle until Bell settled in five years ago. He’s not exactly a fresh face, however, as he’s sat in with the band repeatedly over the entire length of their existence. “Since Paul’s been here full-time, the Nighthawks have been kicking some serious butt,” Wenner said. “I really think this is the best work we’ve done in years.”


The Nighthawks will perform at Greensboro’s Carolina Blues Festival at 5:45 p.m.