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The music of the Nighthawks is not for home consumption -- at least, not without the clink of cocktail glasses and beer bottles, the background banter of bar patrons, the aroma of cigarettes and stale beer, and maybe even a fight in the alley out back. You can hear the nightlife in every hard-driving downbeat, in the shuffling blues rhythm of the electric guitar, the wah-wah wail of the harmonica, and the gravely voice growling into the microphone. Like the perfect soundtrack to a barroom dream, the Nighthawks provide the score night after endless night.
So it's no wonder they've been tagged the "world's greatest bar band" not just for the solid blues sound they've perfected over the years but also for the unrelenting schedule of touring that started three decades ago and continues to this day. Musical Rambos, the Nighthawks weathered the pitfalls and strife that smack every band sooner or later and tear apart all but the strongest.
"I'm pretty much geared to when we all fall over," laughs Nighthawks cofounder and harpist/vocalist Mark Wenner, now on the north side of 50, at the idea of retiring the band. "I can remember during some slightly tough times saying, "Well, I'd really like to make 30. Whatever else happens, cool.'"
Wenner not only survived to 30 but now, as the band makes the rounds this year -- celebrating its 30th birthday -- the odometer keeps rolling up more and more miles, appearances, and years. With some 200 shows planned for this year, the band members figure they've logged around 7000 in their lifetimes, performing in 49 of the 50 states (sorry, Alaska).
"When we were young and hungry, we did 300 a year. I think that would knock us out anymore," Wenner says from his home just outside Washington, D.C. "One of the wonderful things about this whole deal [the anniversary tour] is that it's kind of business as usual."
The usual business for the group sometimes means two shows a day, such as Memorial Day weekends, when it'll typically perform five shows from Friday to Sunday night. "We can still pull that off," Wenner boasts, "but everybody but one [of the band members] is over 50 now."
Maybe the Nighthawks have earned a day or two off, considering how they paved the way for so many traveling blues bands that followed in their wake. During the 1970s, when they started out, the blues was mostly confined to a few places, like Chicago, Memphis, and the juke joints of the Deep South, where the genre had long ago been established. For the rest of the country, blues music was still an anomaly, blues bars nonexistent, and blues acts who took to the road like the Nighthawks nothing short of pioneers.
"One of the cool things about the Nighthawks," says the rough but affable Wenner, "we were playing before there were blues bars in many, many towns. We invaded all kinds of circuits. We invaded country-rock circuits, top-40 circuits, folk-rock circuits. In some ways, we helped to create what's now a standard blues touring thing."
A few other established blues acts were also taking to the road during the 1970s, following the blues and folk revival of the 1960s. Legends like Muddy Waters and James Cotton made the trek from Chicago to Boston while playing in smaller Northeastern cities along Interstate 90 and doing the same from Chicago to San Francisco along I-80. Thus, places like Buffalo, Rochester, Cleveland, and Lincoln, Nebraska, sprouted blues bars. In the Southeast and mid-Atlantic, the Nighthawks were doing the same as their musical heroes -- blazing a trail from Augusta to Charlottesville while opening ears to their gritty blues sound.
"We virtually created circuits in Virginia, the Carolinas, down into Georgia. The places we were playing, they'd never seen anything like us," says Wenner. "Everybody else that played there probably wore cowboy hats and played a lot of Marshall Tucker, and here we were in black T-shirts playing the other stuff."
That other stuff, so new to Southern audiences in the Nighthawks' early days, was old and deeply rooted music by the time Wenner and his mates put their personal stamp on it. As a kid growing up in the suburbs of D.C., Wenner discovered at an early age the magic of the rockabilly, soul, and blues that came out of the mid-Atlantic melting pot of the nation's capital.
"We heard Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker on the radio in the '50s here, and what I liked about rockabilly was even more pure in Jimmy Reed," Wenner says of his formative youth. "If I could find a tape of the radio I listened to at 8 or 9 years old, you could probably hear half the songs that we do in a given night. I'm definitely a product of what I heard growing up."
After an English degree from Columbia University (which seems a bit incongruous for such a heavily tattooed and biker-friendly man), Wenner returned to D.C. and soon teamed up with guitar whiz Jimmy Thackery, along with drummer Pete Ragusa and bass player Jan Zukowski. Thus, the odyssey known as the Nighthawks was born. Despite plenty of additions and subtractions along the way (most notably Thackery leaving for a solo career in 1986), the Nighthawks have survived with their core, and their soul, intact.
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."