Review: The Nighthawks - Damn Good Time!

A Damn Good Time from the quintessential bar band
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The Nighthawks - Damn Good Time!They’ve been called “America’s Bar Band,” and after over thirty years of relentless touring, there’s little doubt The Nighthawks deserve the name.

Though Mark Wenner is the only founding member left, the band’s sound is genuinely road-hardened, and has remained remarkably consistent through the years.   A mix of hardcore blues and roadhouse rock ‘n’ roll (and pretty much anything else that fits), The Nighthawks  are a true ‘what you see is what you get’ band.  There are no big-name guests, no fancy production or studio wizardry -  just lean, muscular music, driven by squalling harmonica and stinging guitar, anchored by steady yet supple bass and drums. 

It is indeed bar band music, stuff that can be reproduced night after night by four guys who don’t need a truckload of equipment to replicate their recordings.  For the most part that’s a good thing – there’s a blue-collar honesty to everything the Nighthawks do, and there’s absolutely no doubt they – Wenner in particular – do it because they simply couldn’t not do it.  Occasionally, though, it results in recorded material that’s just a little shy of overwhelming.

When the Hawks stick to straight-ahead bluesy rock ‘n’ roll, as they do on opener “Too Much” (originally a hit for Elvis Presley), they’re untouchable.  Wenner is a highly underrated harmonica player, and guitarist Paul Bell is every bit his equal.  But there are a few tunes here that, while they’d no doubt work well from the bandstand, seem a little ill-suited to the band’s lineup. 

Take “Smack Dab In The Middle” – usually a bit of a jazzy rave-up punctuated with brass, the ‘Hawks choose to mimic the typical horns with unison vocals.  It’s honest, and would no doubt be fun when performed live.  On record, though, it simply doesn’t stand up to repeated listens – it comes across as a somewhat odd repertoire choice, one the band simply doesn’t have the resources to pull off.  Then there are the vocals.  Liner notes state that “everybody sings,” and while that may be a democratic approach, the truth is Wenner is by far the band’s strongest vocalist.  (Without song-by-song credits one can only assume it’s Castle singing his own “Bring Your Sister,” sounding exactly like a sideman given his moment to step up front – again, fine as part of the evening’s show but not really worthy of recording).

But that in turn is part of the band’s charm.  They’re not slick, not overly polished to a shimmery sheen of lifeless perfection.  If they’re  a little raw, they’re also a whole lot real, and they’ve always taken an ‘anything goes’ approach to repertoire.  Like all great bar bands, they’ll tackle just about any tune that’ll get people up and dancing, and throw anything they’ve got at ’em.   They take on Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together” and Jimmy McCracklin’s “Georgia Slop,” toss in a few originals (in addition to Castle’s “Bring Your Sister,” there are three tunes co-written by drummer Stutso), while the title track (on which Stutso again gets a co-credit) is a soulful yet sunny declaration of self-worth with some truly exemplary harmonica.

And that’s pretty much the bottom line on the Nighthawks.  If your tastes run to the slick and polished, and you prefer recordings as close to perfect as possible, this one might not measure up.  If you like real music played by real people, and if you prefer exuberant expression and the sheer joy of funky, danceable grooves, the Nighthawks are as good as it gets.  Yes, they’re a bar band, but unlike most of today’s pre-fab productions that put image before musical ability, The Nighthawks deliver exactly what they promise – a Damn Good Time!