Living Blues - p.51
"Well-versed in a variety of genres, the Nighthawks' mix of 12 originals and covers melds smoothly. The slow-dance of the title track is dusted with AM-ready harmonies..."
Personnel: Paul Bell (vocals, guitar); Mark Wenner (vocals, harmonica); Mark Stutso (vocals, drums); Johnny Castle (vocals).
Audio Mixers: David Earl; The Nighthawks.
Recording information: Severn Sound Studios, Annapolis, MD.
Photographer: Sam Holden.
It's no surprise that the noun "work" appears in the title of three songs, and is a major component of "Minimum Wage," too, on the Nighthawks' umpteenth album since their 1972 inception. After all, "hard working band" is the phrase that has defined them over the decades and that shows no sign of changing in 2012, the quartet's 40th year on the endless road. It's also no coincidence that another track is called "Damn Good Time," because that's exactly what you'll get on one of their typical three-sweaty-sets-a-night gigs. But the band's recorded legacy has been plagued by inconsistent material and poor distribution as they have label hopped over their lengthy career. Harpist/frontman Mark Wenner doesn't have a particularly distinctive voice, either, but on this debut for the established blues imprint Severn, he shares vocals with two other members (guitarist Paul Bell is the odd man out) which creates a more diverse effort. Musically, bassist Johnny Castle and drummer Mark Stutso contribute some sharp originals, and as usual, the band unearths interesting covers, this time from the catalogs of Elvis Presley ("Too Much"), Billy Price (a rollicking "Who You're Working For"), Jimmy McCracklin (the always gutsy "Georgia Slop"), and even Nat King Cole ("Send for Me" reveals a sweet, late-night jazz/blues vibe seldom heard from these guys). They also rock through a tough swampy version of the hoary chestnut "Let's Work Together," but the song has been so over-recorded throughout the decades, it would have been better saved for the live show. What keeps the Nighthawks fresh is their ability to fuse soul, rockabilly, pop, and country elements with their rugged blues and that's evident here in the original rockers "Heartbreak Shake" and "Bring Your Sister." Wenner's Little Walter-styled electric harp drives the slow, swinging "Minimum Wage" like a Mustang motor and returns the opening Presley tune to its Chicago shuffling roots. None of the dozen tracks overstay their welcome, solos are sharp and compact as the band runs through its paces on an album that just sounds better than the majority of the entries in their extensive catalog, likely thanks to co-producer/engineer/mixer/label owner David Earl, who captures the Nighthawks at their veteran best. There aren't any surprises here, but for an act that has been slogging it out in bars, opening festival stages, and working as hard as the Nighthawks have over the past four decades, releasing an album this solid is an impressive accomplishment. ~ Hal Horowitz