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Music Review: The Nighthawks – Damn Good Time!

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While Mark Wenner is the only original member still in the Washington D.C.-based Nighthawks, the band has maintained a more or less consistent sound since its live debut in 1972. For one matter, a Nighthawks gig is going to feature Wenner blowing his custom designed Hohner Marine Band harmonicas. For many audiences, a harp means the blues. However, The Nighthawks first 1974 album was called Rock ‘n’ Roll for a reason. In fact, Wenner and company have been rocking for 40 years and owe as much to Carl Perkins and Eddie Cochran as they do Jimmy Reed and Willie Dixon. They’ve been retro and roots for longer than those terms have been around.

The main difference with the new line-up on Damn Good Time! is the vocals, as all four members sing. Two longtime mainstays are Paul Bell (guitar) and Johnny Castle (bass). While he’s been touring with the band for two years, Mark Stutso makes his studio debut on Damn Good Time!. He’s far more than the new drummer. For this album, he’s also the lead singer for five tracks and is the most prolific songwriter along with his partner, Norman Nardini.

The Nighthawks have never been known for heavy radio airplay, but instead have established a reputation as a hard-touring band more than capable of getting a live crowd going. That’s pretty much what Damn Good Time! sounds like, a set list from a Saturday night gig when the band is hot and the beer is cold. For example, it’s dancin’ time in “Georgia Slop,” where the crowd don’t care about no police and Mondays are for talking about what happened Saturday night. In the same groove, staying up until the rooster crows in “Night Work” is what the singer loves to do.

You can also kick off your shoes for Castle’s “Bring Your Sister,” a fast shuffle featuring Bell’s rockabilly leads. The foursome is very much old school blues rock, with Wenner’s wheezing harp on “Too Much” and “Who You’re Workin’ For.” The slow, soulful “Damn Good Time” is among the selections that include background harmonies few straight-up blues bands ever attempt.

The harmonizing continues in the Stutso co-composition, “Minimum Wage” in which a lover gives out her favors for…well, the title says it all. Stutso also co-wrote “Down to My Last Million Tears” and “Heartbreak Shake,” which you can add to the list of ills love can leave you with. No bar band gets through a night without doing some covers, and here the quartet does its version of “Let’s Work Together,” the Wilbert Harrison song which was a hit for both Canned Heat and Bryan Ferry. The slowest of the offerings is “Send For Me,” a choice from the Nat King Cole catalogue. Then it’s last call.

Damn Good Time! isn’t going to be on many listeners’ “Best of 2012” lists, but it does hit all the right notes to fulfill the title’s promise. It’s a tight collection of short songs with minimal jamming that should appeal to anyone who likes to share their weekends with Budweiser, Miller, or whatever your beverage of choice is. But not for those drinking alone—as Elvin Bishop used to say, to have a good time, there should be at least two of you in the room.

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About Wesley Britton