Mark Wenner's previous solo outing was titled "Runs Well - Needs Paint," a presumably facetious reference to its rather rough-edged contents. The same might well be said of Mark's follow-up, "Mama Tried." The music chugs along like a vintage roadster, reliable, powerful, yet it remains gloriously ragged and unflinchingly real.
Mr. Wenner, of course, is a founding member of Washington's Nighthawks, who over the course of some thirty-odd years together have become almost as much an institution as the quintessentially American music they celebrate. His solo work mines much the same vein, a free-wheeling odyssey through virtually every form of roadhouse rock 'n' roll, but there's an extra emphasis on country that doesn't show up often in his work with the Nighthawks.
A harmonica player of the highest calibre, Mark - here aided and abetted by a crack unit that features brothers Dave (guitar) and Dick (bass) Pruitt and the relentless drumming of Mike Cherry - opens with a band original (all are credited) that showcases his squalling tone through a furious instrumental. Next it's "Walkin' After Midnight." Yup, the Patsy Cline classic. Mark's vocals aren't quite up to the task, but then this music isn't about impeccable performances, it's about sweaty honesty, and on those grounds things work well. "Try It Baby" isn't quite blues nor country, but has an irresistibly easy-going groove that falls somewhere in between; Johnny Cash's "Big River" further blurs the lines, showing just how close to blues so much of Johnny's work is when cast in the right light. Bob Dylan's "She Belongs To Me" is taken as a loping country rocker (more country than rock if one's keeping track), while Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" again falls squarely in between the two, with a touch of the blues sensibility that informs so much of Merle's work. "Howie's Hammer," another instrumental credited to all concerned, is a little too laid-back; relaxed is one thing, but this one fails to ignite despite the spark provided by Mark's understated solo. Better is "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)." Mark will never be confused with Brook Benton, but - who knew? - here he proves himself almost a crooner, albeit one with a bit of grit around the edges. "A Rockin' Good Way (To Mess Around And Fall In Love)" is again associated with Mr. Benton; and again, Mark favours a gently loping approach on what's unmistakeably a 50's rock 'n' roller, though the harp break lends a country feel. Mark starts out by emulating Jimmy Reed's laconic drawl on the latter's "Let's Get Together," but his own raspy style quickly takes over; the groove is just as laid back, but Mark finds intricacies within his solo that Jimmy would never have thought of. Things wrap up with "Cleo's Mood," another instrumental low on energy, with Mark's squalling harp the high point.
Those looking for polished perfection certainly won't find it here. Mr. Wenner's not likely to win any vocal prizes, it's clearly a first-take collection, warts and all, and blues fans are forewarned that there's as much country in Mark's rollicking, roadhouse-ready sound as there is blues. But it's real, and heartfelt, and the harp work is absolutely killer.
Good, but try before you buy.
Right On Rhythm
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