By Abel Folgar
By Lee Zimmerman
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And while the Nighthawks may be the greatest of bar bands, they're no mere bar band. With 20-odd albums to their credit (1976's Open All NiteLP is a justified near-classic), the Nighthawks have played with, behind, and following a who's who of top blues musicians. While they've teamed for decades with the great blues pianist Pinetop Perkins, they've also worked with legends Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Big Walter Horton, Carl Perkins, James Cotton, and B.B. King.
"Unbelievable," Wenner says simply of collaborating with his heroes. "I mean, you pinch yourself -- "I'm on stage with Muddy Waters, I'm eating breakfast with Muddy Waters, I'm in Muddy Waters's kitchen at his house in Chicago.' We are really the last guys to get a chance to do a lot of that."
With gigs like that, the Nighthawks easily earned their blues cred, and their status as a headlining blues act, with opening acts the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, and George Thorogood. The late '70s and early '80s were good for the Nighthawks, who rode a surge from the next generation of bluesmen. But as the careers of Stevie, Robert, and George all skyrocketed, the Nighthawks were mired in label troubles with Mercury Records.
"During that Stevie Ray/Robert Cray heyday when there was a lot of blues visibility, I always felt like I was sittin' on the bench during the big game, with an injury," says Wenner, a little wistful about what could have been. But the Nighthawks have remained true to their calling, always looking forward to their next gig, collecting miles and ever more stories from the road.
"We never played behind chicken wire, but at times I wish there was," says Wenner, referring to the scene from The Blues Brothers. "A lot of joints we played in the '70s were a lot rougher, because we've always had a really strong blue-collar/biker kind of crowd. But there was always that tension and energy, and it made for a strong performance."