The Nighthawks: Back At The Diner

With Established 1972, the veteran Maryland blues rockers celebrate the satisfaction that they’ve endured for five decades

The Nighthawks Established 1972, VizzTone Records 2022

I first heard of the Nighthawks when my buddy Joe smartened me up to the hard-working blues-rock band from Washington, D.C. way back in the ‘70s.

A Maryland native, Joe had witnessed the band’s evolution on the Rockville, MD, club scene and, as they were performing in Nashville at the legendary Exit In club – opening for their friends George Thorogood & the Destroyers – the two of us, along with our brother Road Dog, dug into the couch cushions and came up with enough coin to buy tickets to the show. 

Using our longhair charms (as well as Joe’s homeboy connection), we talked ourselves backstage and hung out with the two engaging blues-rock outfits. While I was ostensibly covering the show for Nashville entrepreneur Thom King’s pioneering Take One zine, our cross-town rivals Hank magazine sent their cub reporter Hunter Harvey to talk to the bands. A short, bespectacled, nerdy writer and part-time radio DJ, various Nighthawks band members took no little glee in pushing him back out the backstage door whenever Hunter would sneak his way in to shout a question at nobody in particular, holding out his portable tape recorder while we doused him in beer. 

In between the opening of pop-tops and the sharing of illicit substances, both bands put on a helluva show, the friendly rivals trying to one up each other with obscure blues covers, revved-up rockers, loud guitars, and crashing drumbeats. The Nighthawks were touring in support of their critically-acclaimed 1978 Jacks and Kings album while Thorogood was celebrating the upcoming release of his sophomore effort Move It On Over, which would shoot up to #33 on the Billboard chart on its way to Gold™ Record sales status and mainstream fame for the blues-rock singer, songwriter, and guitarist. While Thorogood’s career was still in its infancy, the Nighthawks were already battle-weary veterans of a cutthroat blues scene with five albums, six years, and hundreds of shows under their collective belts.   

 

 

The Nighthawks “first met George outside of Speakeasy Pete’s in Cambridge MA in early 1977,” band founder Mark Wenner tells Rock & Roll Globe in an email interview.

“The Rounder folks had played me a demo of his first album that they were actually hesitant to release and I was super enthusiastic,” he explained. “We exchanged numbers and that August I needed him and his guys to open some shows for J.B. Hutto, Brewer Phillips, and Ted Harvey, who showed up without backline. Needless to say, George ripped it up and, in September, he opened for us at the Warner Theater; that was the last time he opened for us. We did many shows and collaborations, but never tried to follow him again! When George did Live Aid, Billy Blough was unreachable on honeymoon and our Jan Zukowski subbed. I insisted Jan wear a Nighthawks T-shirt.”

The Nighthawks are celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary this year with a new album – appropriately titled Established 1972 – and the satisfaction that they’ve endured for five decades, outlasting many of their peers, and finding success in one of the most dog-eat-dog businesses on the planet. Wenner has been the one constant in the Nighthawks since the beginning, and after a number of band members came and went through the revolving door, the early band line-up featured Wenner, guitarist Jimmy Thackery, bassist Jan Zukowski, and drummer Pete Ragusa. This is the line-up that recorded now-classic LPs like 1976’s Open All Nite, 1977’s Side Pocket Shot, and the aforementioned Jacks & Kings. The Nighthawks’ 1979 album, Full House, featured additional guest musicians like blues legend Pinetop Perkins and guitarist ‘Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin from Muddy Waters’ band.

The Nighthawks Side Pocket Shot, Adelphi Records 1977

Even the Rolling Stones have shed a few members over the many decades, and the Nighthawks are no different – Thackery left the band in the mid-‘80s to pursue a solo career, with guitarists like Jimmy Nalls (Sea Level) and Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule, Allman Brothers) filling his seat for a while. Zukowski bowed out in 2004 and Ragusa held on until 2010’s Last Train To Bluesville album, which earned the Nighthawks a coveted Blues Music Award. Along the way, the band has played thousands of shows and released roughly 30 studio and live albums previous to Established 1972

The current Nighthawks roster includes mainstay Wenner, guitarist Don Hovey, bassist Paul Pisciotta, and drummer Mark Stutso, who has been with the band for a decade now. All the band members pitch in on vocals and songwriting, creating a diverse and hearty band dynamic. Overall, the band line-up has been remarkably consistent through the years. What are the benefits of having long-serving band members and what is the benefit of bringing in new guys to the band? Says Wenner, “having guys for long periods of time allows for a huge repertoire of material but having new guys means learning new stuff and freshens everything.”

Established 1972 follows much the same blueprint as the band’s previous recordings, i.e. a high-octane blend of deep blues, roots-rock, and Southern soul designed to raise the roof on any juke-joint or honky-tonk the band sets fire to on any given night. The LP launches with Wayne Carson’s “Nobody” as heard on Welsh pub-rocker Geraint Watkins’ 1979 album, and the Nighthawks hew closer to Watkins’ loose-knit style than to Carson’s country-flavored hit, with plenty of tremolo-laden guitar licks from Hovey and steady rollin’ harmonica play. Hovey’s original “You Seem Distant” is just good old-school roots-rock with a bluesy tinge, with crooning vox, gently swinging rhythms, and blasts of honking harmonica.

The Nighthawks 2022 (Image: The Nighthawks)

Sam Cooke’s classic “I’ll Come Running Back To You” is given a total Nighthawks makeover, providing the song with a “high lonesome” feel with rich, warm instrumentation and R&B-tinted vocals accompanied by scraps of harmonica and elegant fretwork. By contrast, drummer Mark Stusto’s “Coming and Going” is a bluesy romp with lusty lyrics, blistering guitar, and freight train rhythms. The band surprises with a cover of the Slickers’ reggae classic “Johnny Too Bad,” which had been featured on the soundtrack of Jamaican legend Jimmy Cliff’s 1972 film The Harder They Come. Although artists as diverse as UB40, Sublime, and Taj Mahal have covered the song, none have done it with the Nighthawks’ unique vision. Without even trying to mimic some sort of cod-reggae sound, the band reinvents the outlaw tale with scorching guitars and a rootsy arrangement, delivered with punkish intensity.   

Wenner patterned his vocals on band friend John Hammond’s take of Mose Allison’s “Ask Me Nice,” imbuing the song with an immeasurable swagger while the band’s sparse instrumentation perfectly underlines the harp player’s red-hot blasts of sound. The band dips down to the Bluff City for a soulful reading of their friend Colin Kenny’s “West Memphis,” bringing a Southern soul vibe to the performance with Steve Cropper-styled guitar, subtle rhythms, and powerful vocals. The funky, Southern-fried “Gas Station Chicken” is the rare misfire on Established 1972, the group-written tune trying to lively up the party with an Elvin Bishop-styled novelty song that, while long on instrumental flourishes from Wenner’s harmonica and Hovey’s guitar, nevertheless falls short of entertaining. Much better is the rockabilly-styled cover of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Ain’t That Lovin’ You” a la Elvis Presley, with jaunty vocals, electrically-charged git licks, and runaway drumbeats. 

Hovey’s “Houseband” is an unbridled blues rocker with blustery harpwork, vibrant vocals, and big beat drums while the band revs up the motor for a cover of the Coasters’ Leiber-Stoller penned “Run Red Run,” a hillbilly-styled rave-up with joyful vocals and a sordid, albeit humorous story of an outlaw monkey (yes!) that beats “Gas Station Chicken” hands down in both absurdity and rock ‘n’ roll cheap thrills. Established 1972 closes with Hovey’s country ballad “Driving,” a partially tongue-in-cheek crooner reminiscent of Faron Young (or a young Willie Nelson) with tasteful instrumentation and a laid-back ambiance. Much as they have with every album since Open All Nite, the Nighthawks deliver in Established 1972 an encyclopedic class in American music, drawing upon all the genres that suggests, and performed with virtuoso passion. 

 

VIDEO: The Nighthawks at the Blue House

What, if anything, did the band do differently for Established 1972 and what were their expectations for the album?

Established 1972 was made in a COMPLETELY different way than the usual Nighthawks recording,” Wenner tells Rock & Roll Globe. “In the past, we have roughed out a half a dozen songs in a days’ rehearsal and played them for several years, then played them in the studio. This album evolved over months of woodshedding during the pandemic. Even when we started the actual recording at Severn Sound Studios in Annapolis, we went once a week over months without pressure rather than a couple of days of tracking and a couple of days of mixing and without watching the clock or counting pennies.”

The band’s sound has evolved over the years into a more rootsy, Americana style. Was this a conscious choice or just a natural progression? “The concept of the band as a roots Americana outfit was there from the beginning as stated in the manifesto of the first album, Rock and Roll. Mixing genres and having rich harmonies over a blues band foundation. It turns out with the current personnel that goal has been more successfully achieved. We have always reserved the right to play any damn thing we wanted in our own quirky way.”

With all that the Nighthawks have accomplished over the past five decades, where do they go from here?

“After 50, years the only real goal is to enjoy the fruits of our labor and get to play together in good situations as long as our health allows,” says Wenner. “The physical rigors of the lifestyle are not easy with four guys 65-75 years old. We are having a ball and feel really good about the music we are making every night. We hope we can sustain it for a good while longer.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rev. Keith A. Gordon

RockandRollGlobe contributor Rev. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with 40+ years experience writing for publications like Blues Music magazine and Blurt. Follow him on Twitter @reverendgordon.

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