Several years and several albums after I first encountered Washington, DC's Nighthawks, it's good to see they are still a tightly knit band, churning out quality Blues. On "Still Wild," their first for the German Ruf label, the only noticeable change from way back is that Pete Kanaras now plays guitar instead of Jimmy Thackery.
"Still Wild" could be summed up as something old, something new, something country, something blue. When it comes to the old, the Nighthawks have impeccable taste, covering a couple of songs by the prodigious Willie Dixon (did he ever write a duff tune?), and one co-written by Muddy Waters and St. Louis Jimmy. The new consists of a couple of tunes penned by harpist and vocalist Mark Wenner. The country part is really a Bluesy arrangement of Country tunes. And the blue part is pretty much all of it.
The band hit the groove straight away with an almost rockabilly reading of Willie Dixon's "Tiger In Your Tank." The motor vehicle theme is continued on Merle Kilgore and Tilman Franks' "The Wild One," which moves into Blues/Rock territory. The pace then slows right down for "Cry Like A Man," on which the vocals are reminiscent of David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame).
The inclusion of "Read Way Back" (Waters/Oden) is interesting, because it's a departure from the sort of tune normally associated with Muddy Waters. Wenner plays some fine chromatic harp on this one, before the band mix Country and Blues on the original "Guard My Heart." They adopt a similar blend for a driving rendition of Charlie Rich's "Washed My Hands" too.
The penultimate track ("Illustrated Man") could have been written specially for the band's tattooed Mark Wenner. In fact it was penned for Johnny Winter by Fred James--who seems to be bidding to be the new Willie Dixon with his extensive writing, playing and production credits--and his wife Mary-Ann Brandon. The song chugs along in true Jimmy Reed fashion, with Wenner providing the appropriately high pitched wailing harp.
The best is saved until last, however. "Slow Dance" is a fabulously moody Blues instrumental written by Wenner. The gentle weeping guitar helps establish the tone for what is essentially a showcase for Wenner's considerable skills as a harp player. The influence of Little Walter is most obvious here.
On "Still Wild" the Nighthawks appear to have mellowed a bit by including a few country songs; the arrangements are more Blues than Country, however. Whilst they add a Bluesy feel to most things they tackle, their best stuff is when they stick to Blues material. And, at their best, the Nighthawks are still a class act.
This review is copyright © 1999 by Gordon Baxter, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.