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Music Review: The Nighthawks – Last Train To Bluesville

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The Nighthawks, long known as “America’s Bar Band”, have toured both the country and its music relentlessly for over thirty years now, though vocalist and harmonicist Mark Wenner is now the sole founding member left. But the ‘Hawks have always remained rooted in the blues, and here they return to those roots with an ‘unplugged’ collection, captured live in the studio, that positively rocks …

Joining Wenner this time around are guitarist Paul Bell (who first sat in with the band back in ’75) and bassist Johnny Castle. It’s the swan song for drummer Pete Ragusa , though – another original member, he’s since left the band. Collectively they bring superior chops and unfettered enthusiasm to a collection of 12-bar warhorses, with a few surprises in the mix to keep things lively.

First up it’s a spirited romp through Leiber and Stoller’s “Chicken And The Hawk,” a novelty jump number made famous by Big Joe Turner; Wenner’s squalling harp and Bell’s fleet fretwork render the lack of brass a moot point. There are three songs courtesy of Muddy Waters – both “Nineteen Years Old” and “Can’t Be Satisfied” are played straight, powered by Ragusa’s busy snare and featuring nice slide work from Bell. But the intricate interplay between harp and guitar, combined with Ragusa’s relentless percussion, gives the set’s closer, “Rollin’ And Tumblin’,” a thoroughly unique and memorable treatment.

Elsewhere are tunes from the likes of James Brown (“I’ll Go Crazy”), Slim Harpo (“Rainin’ In My Heart”) and Chuck Berry (a spirited “30 Days”). As a harmonicist, Wenner can hold his own in the best of company, as witnessed on tracks from masters Sonny Boy Williamson (“Mighty Long Time”) and Little Walter (“High Temperature”). Both feature superbly nuanced and endlessly inventive work on the Mississippi Saxophone.

Wenner tackles most of the vocal work, and while there’s nothing remarkable about his voice, he delivers everything with the kind of relaxed ease that comes with years of use and road-tested experience; while his might not be a definitive version for the ages, when he sings a song he owns it. Adding variety to proceedings, he’s relived on a pair by Castle, with Ragusa handling one as well.

Sound throughout is exemplary, with each instrument superbly defined. There’s a palpable presence to Bell’s guitar – one can almost feel the strings vibrating the air, and real bite to Wenner’s acoustic harp. And with everything captured in a single take at the Sirius/XM Studios in Washington, this is a superb document of the intuitive interplay between seasoned veterans who still find sheer, unbridled joy in making music together. It simply doesn’t get much better than this …!

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