Albert Castiglia,
Solid Ground
(Ruf, 2014)

The Nighthawks,
(EllerSoul, 2014)

Named after the late Chicago bluesman Robert Nighthawk, the Nighthawks, or iterations of them, have been around since early 1972. Singer/harmonica player Mark Wenner is the only surviving member from the early generation. The band trafficks in an approach that could almost be called "traditional" by now: 1960s-formed, blues-accented guitar rock. These days, when rock is no longer central to pop music, you're more likely to hear unadulterated guitar rock on satellite and Internet radio, where chances are it's labeled "Americana." In fact, you could make the case that a big chunk of so-called Americana is just revived 1960s rock. Many of its self-identified practitioners seem to have roots that run no deeper.

The Nighthawks, all four members of them, are to be preferred to the bulk of the competition. 444 (the title taken from a bouncing rockabilly number about an event that occurs at 4:44 a.m.) is a particularly good and accessible record, which rings with the authority and authenticity of musicians who've honed their sound through decades of road warring on every imaginable kind of stage. Paul Bell (guitarist) and Johnny Castle (bass) have been with the band for more than a decade, Mark Stutso (drums) more than five years.

Produced by the Nighthawks themselves, 444 captures an endearingly gritty vibe, which I imagine is -- happily -- as close to a live sound as is likely to emerge from a studio. A sterile studio sound would subvert the whole idea of the Nighthawks, I'm sure.

Albert Castiglia's Solid Ground puts him closer to blues than to rock. At the same time it reaffirms his reputation as an electric guitarist who knows all the chops while also knowing when to keep them in check. In other words, he practices the restraint too often absent in the exhibitionism endemic to what passes for blues in the 21st century.

Clearly an intelligent and well-versed guy, he is an exceptionally proficient songwriter. Besides the expected Chicago bluesmen (prominently the late Junior Wells, in whose band he once served), Castiglia's influences range widely, counting among them Blind Willie McTell and Bob Dylan (who once wrote a magnificent song titled "Blind Willie McTell"). "Celebration," a particularly appealing cut, feels as if a collaboration between Dylan and the Rolling Stones in the latter's long-ago prime, while Castiglia's cover of the Stones' "Sway" might lead you to believe that the Band cut it originally. I think that if he'd composed it, Dylan would be proud of the acoustic closer, "Just Like Jesus," good enough to make just about any singer-songwriter you can think of hide his or her head in shame. "Searching the Desert for the Blues" is not the McTell classic, but it deftly borrows the title and some of the imagery.

The acoustic "Hard Time" honors the old-time rural bluesmen whose style Castiglia captures yet without merely imitating. He usually includes an acoustic cut or two on each album. As admirable as his electric work is, one hopes that one day he'll decide to devote an entire record to unplugged blues- and folk-flavored material. From the evidence so far available, I suspect that would make for an outstanding recording indeed.

music review by
Jerome Clark

20 September 2014

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