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February/March 2010

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The Nighthawks
Last Train To Bluesville
Rip Bang Records

The Nighthawks

Last Train To Bluesville is unlike most of the other dozens of albums recorded by The Nighthawks over their nearly 30 year history. D.C.'s legendary blues quartet strolled into the XM/Sirius satellite radio studios on the invitation of DJ Bill Wax, and proceeded to cut 10 incredible acoustic blues cuts.

The Nighthawks have always been better known for their rockin' blues style, so this session presents them in a very different format from the usual 'hawks sound.

I've been following The Nighthawks since shortly after their inception, attending many shows in D.C. clubs like the Psyche Delly and the Bayou. To put it simply --- I'm a big, big Nighthawks fan.

I now have a new favorite Nighthawks album. Last Train To Bluesville is a serendipitous treat from start to finish and is my early favorite for top blues disc of the year.

Longtime bandleaders Mark Wenner (harmonica) and Pete Ragusa (drums) are joined here by more recent regular members Paul Bell (guitar) and Johnny Castle (bass). All four members get their chance in the spotlight on the album, but for my money it's really Wenner's show; he consistently shows why he's regularly regarded as one of the best harmonica players in the business.

Big Joe Turner's classic "The Chicken and the Hawk" kicks off the album, with Wenner handling the vocals and blowing the heck out of his harp; Bell also kicks in some tasteful guitar licks here. In all, Wenner handles the vocals on seven of the ten cuts, doing the bluesier stuff like Muddy Waters' "Nineteen Years Old," "Can't Be Satisfied" and "Rollin' and Tumblin'," as well as a knockout version of Slim Harpo's "Rainin' In My Heart."

One of the many highlights of the disc is Ragusa's vocals on James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy," which the 'hawks recorded previously and have had as a staple in their live act for many years. If you're wondering how well it works to do an uptempo James Brown song as an acoustic number, trust me --- it works, and works quite well.

Castle steps up to the mic on the album's rockin'-est tunes, Bo Diddley's "You Don't Love Me" and Chuck Berry's "Thirty Days." Both cuts capture the energy of the original versions without sounding at all derivative.

Sonny Boy Williamson's slow blues, "Mighty Long Time," is turned into a late night, jazzy sound with Bell's guitar work nicely complimenting Wenner's spirited harmonica playing.

The band then takes Little Walter's "High Temperature" and gives it a bit of a doo wop sound with street corner-style backing vocals. Nice interpretation.

The closing cut, Muddy's "Rollin' and Tumblin'," has the original's driving intensity, but with an interesting twist as Ragusa uses something called "tambourine sticks" while pounding out the rhythm on his snare drum.

Last Train To Bluesville shows that The Nighthawks still have it. Unhesitatingly recommended!

--- Bill Mitchell


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