The Nighthawks,
Last Train to Bluesville
(RipBang, 2010)

Over three decades the Nighthawks have undergone a bewildering variety of personnel changes as they've traversed the nation playing blues and bluesy roots-rock, while taking time off to cut the periodic album. Last Train to Bluesville is something different from the usual: a purely acoustic disc that covers songs popularized in electric versions. ("Rollin' & Tumblin'" was originally "Roll & Tumble Blues," a traditional piece that songster Blind Willie Newbern recorded in 1929, but is far more familiar from Muddy Waters' propulsive 1950 cut that is the Nighthawks' inspiration.)

Besides some mid-century Chicago standards (Muddy's "Can't Be Satisfied" and "Nineteen Years Old," Sonny Boy Williamson II's "Mighty Long Time"), whose Delta flavors make country-blues treatments perfectly logical, the Nighthawks move into more unanticipated territory with "The Chicken & the Hawk," a Leiber/Stoller composition associated with big-band blues shouter Big Joe Turner, Chuck Berry's "Thirty Days" and -- most shockingly -- James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy."

While other blues artists have sometimes de-electrified blues standards, most of them have done it in a way intended to reassert the songs' rural references. Last Train has its more or less pure country-blues moments, and they're pleasurable ones. But overall, what the four members of the band in its present incarnation communicate is the feeling of electric music played on unamplified instruments, energetic and hard-driving, with some tasty jazz elements and hints of rock and rockabilly. They stick to the instruments you'd expect: guitar, harmonica, bass and drums; in other words no fiddle, mandolin or washboard to carry the music into the backwoods from which its ancestors came.

To no great surprise, the results are professional in the best sense. After all, these guys are veterans of stage and studio, steeped in the tradition and possessed of chops and spirit. Last Train rides to blues glory.

by Jerome Clark
15 May 2010

After almost 40 years in the blues business, the question of how to keep the music fresh must come up. I can't say that notion was on the Nighthawks' minds, but if it was, they came up with a fine answer: make a live in the studio album on which you play old blues, R&B and rock 'n' roll classics acoustically. Last Train to Bluesville is that album and it's a winner.

Recorded live in the studios of Sirius/XM satellite radio, the album allows the band to explore the music that influenced them when they were coming up, to try to breathe new life into old standards and to see if they can make the songs fly without the benefit of electricity. The effort succeeds on all levels. The band sounds invigorated and fresh, as if they were playing at home around a fireplace. The music is fun; it jumps and wiggles and prances around and stays in your head long after the CD has finished.

It begins with the old Leiber-Stroller classic that Big Joe Turner made popular, "The Chicken & the Hawk," and harmonica player Mark Wenner's vocals makes a 60-year-old novelty song relevant again. His harp and Paul Bell's guitar keep the song afloat, setting up the followup ballad, Muddy Waters' "Nineteen Years Old." (Muddy has three songs on the CD, which is as it should be -- no interpreters have a better feel for Muddy's music than the Nighthawks.)

Wenner handles the bulk of the vocals, but departing drummer Pete Raguso tears the place up on James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy" and bass player Johnny Castle contributes two songs, Chuck Berry's "Thirty Days" and Bo Diddley's "You Don't Love Me."

All told, Last Train to Bluesville is one of the Nighthawks' best. It's one train ride you don't want to miss.

by Michael Scott Cain
18 August 2012