Thursday, July 26, 2012

Damn Good Time! reviewed by Mark Thompson

Damn Good Time!
The Nighthawks
Severn Records
12 tracks/42:18

After forty years, and a number of line-up changes, the Nighthawks continue to be one of the hardest working bands in the country. They zig-zag their way across the nation, regularly playing 250+ shows per year, serving up a heady mix of roadhouse blues and pulsating rock&roll. Last year they were honored when their Last Train From Bluesville recording won the Blues Music award for Acoustic Blues Album of the Year.

Now the band has plugged back in and they are rockin' with a vengeance! The lone remaining original member, Mark Wenner, has recovered from some health issues that haven't impacted his formidable chops on the harmonica. Guitarist Paul Bell and bassist Johnny Castle have spent more than a decade in the band, forming a string section that can turn up the heat without sacrificing their impeccable phrasing. Making his recording debut with the band, drummer Mark Stutso came aboard after a lengthy stint with Jimmy Thackery. Adding his honeyed voice to the mix gives the group the versatility of switching between three distinctive lead singers and, with Bell's contributions, allows them to create some impressive harmony vocalizing.

They shuffle Elvis Presley's “Too Much” through the allay with Wenner blowing some high, reedy harp licks. “Who You're Workin' For” is a stark number memorable for Wenner's wiry vocal. Bell's hypnotic solo sets up Wenner, who's frenzied solo has him attempting to blow the reeds out of his harp. Castle takes the lead on his original, “Bring Your Sister”, a good-time rocker with brief, nimble solos from Wenner and Bell. There's a back-porch feel on “Damn Good Time” that stems from Stutso's trademark soulful vocal surrounded by sterling backing vocals.

“Night Work” is a gritty tribute to bands that earn their living on the road with Bell supplying some
 supple guitar. The band's aggressive approach on “Let's Work Together” combined with Stutso's impassioned plea for unity make this track a highlight. Wenner deftly navigates the swinging beat on “Smack Dab in the Middle” while Stutso's raw vocal and Bell's slinky slide guitar turn “Heartbreak Shake” into a barn-burner. They slow the pace for a languid rendition of “Send For Me”, a tune popularized by Nat King Cole. “Down to My Last Million Tears” crackles with energy from Stutso's emotionally-charged singing and slow-burn solos from Bell and Wenner.

With this release, the Nighthawks serve notice that they are ready, willing and able to build on their recent success. They continue to tap deep into the roots of the American music traditions, using their unrelenting devotion and impeccable craftsmanship to carry the day. This one delivers exactly what it promises, a “Damn Good Time!” - and comes highly recommended!

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