Washington, D. C.'s Nighthawks, from left,
Paul Bell, Pete Ragusa, Mark Wenner and Johnny
Castle, brought their roots and blues music program
to the U. P. on Dec. 6 for a benefit show to aid
local food banks.
By STEVE SEYMOUR
Fresh from gigs in Milwaukee and the Chicago area, nationally-known blues band the Nighthawks landed in the Upper Peninsula last Sunday.
The veteran Washington, D. C.-based group performed at the Terrace Bay Inn with proceeds benefiting food pantries at Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Presented under the "Blues for a Cause" banner, the concert was organized by Escanaba resident Wendy Pepin, who has held similar benefits for the Delta Area Animal Society and Northwoods Airlifeline.
Hard-working road warriors, the Nighthawks delivered two raucous 75-minute sets, highlighting their diverse influences in blues and roots music.
Founded in 1972, the Nighthawks today consist of Mark Wenner (harmonica, vocals), Paul Bell (lead guitar, vocals), Pete Ragusa (drums, vocals) and Johnny Castle (bass, vocals).
The band is touring in support of their "American Landscape" compact disc issued on Powerhouse Records, based in Falls Church, VA.
Released earlier this year, the studio album is a well-crafted combination of cover songs by the likes of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and originals by Castle. Castle's "Jana Lea," a tribute to his wife, is one of the stand-out tracks on the disc and a crowd favorite.
U. P. fans welcomed the Nighthawks from shows at The Space in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill. and the Miramar Theater in Milwaukee where they shared the stage with Hubert Sumlin, guitarist for the legendary Howlin' Wolf.
The Nighthawks have honed their sound in thousands of one-night stands across the country, now including northern Michigan.
They launched their local show before about 150 fans with "Bring It On Home," a blues classic written by Willie Dixon. Made famous in the early 1960s by Sonny Boy Williamson II, the song was a perfect choice to highlight Wenner's outstanding skills on mouth harp and vocals.
Choosing a number from their "Blue Moon In Your Eye" CD, the Nighthawks paid tribute to Bo Diddley with "You Don't Love Me (You Don't Care)."
Little Walter Jacobs got a tip of the hat with "High Temperature," a track from their "Pain and Paradise" album.
Saluting early rock 'n' roll, the band played energetic versions of Carl Perkins' "Put Your Cat Clothes On" and "Thirty Days" by Chuck Berry.
Songwriter Willie Dixon, got another nod with "The Same Thing," recorded for Chess Records by Muddy Waters.
The Nighthawks' show took a twist with the next two songs: Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" and "Woke Up This Morning." The latter tune is the theme song from "The Sopranos," a popular HBO television show.
"Night Train," a No. 1 R&B hit for Jimmy Forest in 1952, later covered by James Brown and others, closed the band's first set.
The Nighthawks kicked off the second part of their program with "Get Out Of My Life, Woman," by Chicago's Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Elvis Presley's 1961 smash, "Little Sister," followed.
The band performed "I'll Go Crazy," James Brown's 1960 hit, before moving on to Presley's "I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water."
Muddy Waters got his due with "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "Got My Mojo Workin'." Both numbers come from the Willie Dixon songbook.
The band returned to Bo Diddley for "I Can Tell," and added B. B. King's "Rock This House."
Folk rock innovator Bob Dylan's "Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I'll Go Mine)" and "She Belongs to Me" slotted next.
The Nighthawks gave the crowd a glimpse into their next CD, due in February, with a performance of Muddy Waters' "I Just Can't Be Satisfied."
They followed with "Big Boy," the opening track from "American Landscape."
"Shake Your Money Maker," Elmore James' last hit, closed the program, although the band returned for an encore with a holiday medley including "Blue Christmas."
Over the years, the Nighthawks have performed with many great bluesmen, including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf's great contemporary at Chicago's Chess Records. They've been on the blues tour circuit with John Lee Hooker, Pinetop Perkins, Charlie Musselwhite and John Hammond.
In addition, the combo has shared the stage with Big Walter Horton, Otis Rush and Elvin Bishop.
But, don't pigeon-hole the Nighthawks as strictly a "blues" band. That word doesn't appear in the title of any of the Nighthawks' two-dozen albums. Still, their music is anchored in the blues-rock tradition, not unlike the J. Geils Band or George Thorogood and the Destroyers.
Wenner, frontman and primary vocalist, traces his interest in the blues to 1966 when, as an English major and harp player at Columbia University, he sat in with Slim Harpo, known for the classic, "I'm a King Bee."
In 1972, Wenner got together with a 19-year-old guitar slinger named Jimmy Thackery to form the Nighthawks. Playing up to 300 dates a year, they built a following first around the nation's capital, then on the east coast.
During legendary shows at D. C.'s Bayou Club, they brought in blues greats such as Jimmy Rogers and Otis Rush, and new performers like Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
After the show, I asked Wenner if the band had ever played the U. P. before. "No. Not unless Traverse City counts," he said.
With a bit of luck and local support, perhaps the Nighthawks' first appearance north of the Big Mac will be followed by a return engagement in the near future.